The writer is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He served as chief of staff for Mayor Mike Fahey. He writes as an individual and not on behalf of UNO.
Recent World-Herald articles naming the finalists for Omaha police chief expressed optimism that the new chief will stay longer than his recent predecessors. This hire will be the fourth chief in less than five years, with the last three retiring at young ages when their pensions reached their peak.
Mayor Jim Suttle is clearly concerned about this trend. He has noted that a candidate's retirement eligibility would be a “big factor” in his appointment decision, meaning he is looking for a younger appointee with more years to work.
This is well intended but will not guarantee a long tenure for the next chief. Instead, politics may well decide.
With an election in 10 months, Mayor Suttle might or might not be in office much longer. Should he lose, his successor, who will come from a different party and have an opposing point of view, will surely want a chief who agrees with his or her political, social and law enforcement philosophies.
In other words, a new mayor would likely seek a new chief.
In Omaha, police chiefs are appointed by the mayor but are protected civil service employees who can be removed from office only for cause.
But legal status is one thing; political status, another.
In practice, chiefs generally leave when the mayor wants them to. Indeed, Chief Jim Skinner, appointed by Mayor P.J. Morgan, was gone by the end of 1997, within two years of Mayor Hal Daub's election. And Don Carey, appointed by Mr. Daub in 1998, also left office less than two years after Mayor Mike Fahey's 2001 election.
Given this history, Mayor Suttle's search for a chief with a long time until retirement could be pointless. More depends on the mayor's re-election than the chief's retirement status.
The bigger question is whether the recent spate of short-tenured chiefs matters. Some suggest that the turnover damages police department morale, deprives the city of steady leadership or darkens Omaha's reputation as a stable and well-governed place.
Little if any evidence, though, points to negative impacts from the chiefs' rotation. Serious crime, undoubtedly the most important indicator, has generally declined over the past few years even as chiefs have come and gone.
Nor is police morale necessarily affected by leadership changes. Elevating a chief from inside the ranks opens up a chain of posts that can be filled through promotion, giving officers a chance to move up. More generally, leadership transitions mean fresh thinking and renewed energy throughout the department.
Moreover, excluding candidates nearing retirement age deprives Omaha of the most experienced internal choices for chief. This issue played out in the current search. Two outstanding young officers, both years away from retirement, made the final list, but Interim Chief David Baker did not.
There is also no reason why short tenures for police chiefs should cloud Omaha's reputation. Those looking to start a business, live in or visit Omaha are undoubtedly more interested in street-level public safety and police services than in the current occupant of the chief's office.
None of this means that rapid turnover of police chiefs is ideal.
Longer tenures might allow the department to look further ahead in planning, budgeting and allocating personnel. And with an effective law enforcement philosophy over a longer period, it is possible that crime would decline even more than it already has.
To the extent that Mayor Suttle and others are concerned about rapid turnover, there are two issues to address.
First, future contracts should provide incentive to the chief to stay longer. The most obvious step is to raise the retirement age and the years of service needed for full retirement, encouraging a chief appointed in his or her mid-40s to remain on the job for six or eight years.
But the larger challenge is building a mind-set in the police department — and throughout the city — that makes the job of police chief desirable and fosters a long-term commitment.
One might think that the police chief's job in Omaha is a privileged perch worth occupying for a while — perhaps as a way to build a national reputation and aim for even more visible posts elsewhere, or simply as a way to end your career at the top of your game in the city you love.
This is apparently not the case, and our leaders should be asking why.