In most urban areas the Police Chief is appointed by the mayor, making it often a “political” appointment, meaning a crony is appointed or someone one is given the job to gain political points rather than the best person for the job. Though being above the political fray can be a good thing, it is not always a good idea, especially with the levels of corruption we are seeing today in the United States political arena. Many times someone who is advantageous politically may be appointed and stay on the job for many decades even if they are not the best candidate for the job. A mayor may be a great mayor, and still appoint a less than great police chief who is known to be “effective”.
So what about the Sheriff?
The biggest difference between a chief and a sheriff is how they got their job. Chiefs are appointed, but Sheriffs on the other hand are usually elected. While it may not seem like much of a difference, in actuality it’s a monumental difference. The sheriff answers directly to the people who put him or her in office. (side note: This is why it’s called a Sheriff’s Office and not a Sheriff’s Department.)
A chief is a department head, just like the guy in charge of say, the Water Department. While each department head may have a breadth of knowledge of how to run their department, it’s the city officials who have the ultimate say in what each department does. And they have this say with chiefs in the form of threat of termination should the chief come out against the city’s political leanings. Can you see the problem? And while city government officials are elected, they hold their office based upon a wide variety of subjects (a platform) important to the voters, not just the single notion of laws and safety from the criminal element.
One reason for the election of a Sheriff is because their area of jurisdiction will often overlap a number of political jurisdictions such as small cities, while a police chief is only responsible for a specific unified municipal jurisdiction so it would stand to reason that if mayors, like governors and the President, are considered the highest law enforcement officers of their political entity, then it would be necessary for the city police chief and their department to be subservient to the chief elected executive. This is easily fixed with a law though.
Unlike most other city departments the police have unique responsibilities and powers. And as Stan Lee so loves saying “With great power comes great responsibility”. The power of life and death both in a metaphorical sense, such as locking someone up for a long period of time, and a very real sense, as they are authorized to sometimes kill. These need to be THE most accountable and trustworthy people in government.
If we had a recall mechanism as well as the actual election of police chiefs, then ultimate accountability of these chief officers would be in the hands of the people. It would be unlikely for an all black city to get a white police chief, and if they did, they would have obviously felt that person was qualified and their color was irrelevant.
It may not be the only step to fix police brutality and accountability issues, but it could go a long way.