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Experience counts: To get chief's job, track record vital

June 18, 1999

Show us what you've done.

In an nutshell, that's what candidates must do to convince the International Association of Chiefs of Police that they're up to being Hagerstown's new police chief. So says Kim Kohlhepp, IACP's manager of testing and executive searches.

Earlier this month, the Hagerstown City Council agreed to hire IACP to search for a new chief to replace Dale Jones, who resigned in May to head the law enforcement branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

To find out how that will be done, earlier this week I talked to Kolhepp, who's been with IACP 12 years and who estimates he's been involved in nearly 100 of what IACP calls "executive searches."

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Most of IACP's clients tend to be mid-sized cities, he said, because "large cities tend to handle these things in-house and small cities have to."

The search will begin with placement of an ad in Police Chief magazine and putting out the word through what IACP calls a "nationwide network of law-enforcement executives."

As that's happening, an IACP interviewer comes to the community and analyzes the chief's job, the police department and the community.

Kohlhepp was scheduled to do a lot of that work himself this week, in a series of meetings with people he called "stakeholders."

"I'm coming to Hagerstown and I'll be meeting with a wide variety of stakeholders, as well as people from different departments in the city, folks in the police department and folks from other law-enforcement agencies in the area," he said.

"Our approach is to try to hear from as many stakeholders as we can and distill all that down so that we can figure out what kinds of challenges a successful candidate will face," he said.

"We may be able to do this in one day's worth of meetings and we'll probably do any follow-up we need to do by phone," Kohlhepp said.

Are you a former law enforcement officer, and if so, do you find your past experience useful when you're interviewing people in this process?

"My training is in industrial organizational psychology. I've never been a police officer although I've worked with a lot of police and police departments," he said. The background check of the finalist will be done by IACP personnel who have law-enforcement experience, he said.

How many applicants do you expect to see for this job?

"I've seen as few as 35 and over 100. It depends somewhat on what other jobs are open, but on the other hand, police chief is kind of a specialized function that not everyone is qualified to fill."

Are there essential qualities that any police chief has to have, whether it's a big-city department or a small municipal outfit?

Kohlhepp sidestepped that question, saying he'd rather "focus on the more unique requirements of this position."

The key questions, he said, are:

- What are they going to have to do in Hagerstown?

- What in these candidates' background suggests that they'll be able to do that?

Does that mean it won't be possible for someone who's never been a chief before to fill the job here?

No, said Kohlhepp, but there's got to be something in their past accomplishments that shows that they can handle the chief's job. It's possible for someone who's never been a chief to show some experiences that strongly suggest they can handle the job. But it's also possible to be part of a law-enforcement agency without having any background that would qualify someone for the chief's post, he said.

What's the toughest search you've ever done?

"The toughest situations have been where there've really been nasty problems in a police department, like corruption, and I was afraid that after hearing that, not a lot of people would not apply. But a lot of people are fully prepared to go into that situation. They just have the confidence that that they can handle it."

What's going to be the toughest thing about the Hagerstown search?

"At this point, we're really, really in the early stages and we're not at that stage yet," he said.

Once the deadline for the search closes, probably by the end of July, city officials, including administrator Bruce Zimmerman, will review them and trim the list to six finalists. IACP officials, together with the city, would do interviews, then come up with a single finalist, who will be the subject of an extensive IACP background check.

My take on the new chief is that he or she will have to be someone who has strong experience in combatting the drug trade, but also good communication, leadership and teaching skills.

The community (or at least some segments of it) will have to be sold on the fact that the police are on their side, and that unless they cooperate, life in the city will only get worse. The new chief will also have to lay out a battle plan and get the officers to follow it. In other words, what the city needs is a combination of Solomon and Dwight D. Eisenhower. What the city gets depends on how wisely the council chooses.

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