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Getting promoted, part three: Politics

Editor’s Note: This is part three of a three-part series by Jim Guffey, who began his Law Enforcement career in 1977 with the Pennsylvania Capitol Police and rose through the ranks to ulimately serve as the Chief of Police for Blairsville Borough (Pa.) until his retirement in July 2004. If you missed part one, where Jim wrote about “doing the right things to make promotion through the ranks a strong possibility for you,” check that out by clicking here. Check out part two, where Jim discusses the top 10 dos and don’ts for test day by clicking here. 

So, you’ve done your studying and you’ve researched the different types of promotional tests and worked some practice examples. Now it’s time to talk about the dirty part of promotions — the politics.

I’m sad to say it, but politics has been a part of police work since the first police officer was sworn in, and politics will probably still be with us forever. However, nowhere does politics play such a divisive and destructive role as it does in police promotions. If you don’t realistically take politics into account, any promotion you might deserve could be in jeopardy. Trust me on this — I once had to threaten to sue my department (and let loose some dirty laundry) to stop the politicians from promoting a favorite son, who sat in the number three spot on the promotion list, over me, who sat in the number one slot.

Below are some of the things that I believe you should watch out for during a promotional process. Some of this might be viewed as controversial. Me editor tells me, “That’s OK, a little controversy every so often is a good thing.” He also tells me to tell you to add your comments below. So here 'goes...

1. No member of the civil service commission should sit in on the oral boards or selection process.

Reason: If you appeal your ranking on the list, you must appeal it first to the civil service commission. I can’t see how anyone can rule on your appeal without bias if they were part of the process that put you in the position you are in.

2. The Chief of Police, or any senior ranking officers, should never sit in on the oral boards or selection process.

Reasons: First, I don’t care how holy the Chief tells you he is — he’s still human. All he needs to do is make a comment such as “That’s a good officer there” or “He certainly has straightened himself around” and you’ve got the potential for a member of the board to vote the way the Chief’s voice implies the member should vote.

Secondly, the Chief’s presence could be intimidating for some officers, especially if they’ve bumped heads in the past, and this could cause an officer to be unfairly nervous and perhaps do badly on the oral boards.

Sometimes they’ll say the Chief is just there to advise them on policy should a question arise about an officer’s answer. Let some officer who has no vested interest in the selection process sit there instead. A junior officer should know the policy book just as well as the Chief.

3. Change the 30 percent for the oral board process.

Reason: This is where the politicians can get anyone to any position on the promotion list. In our department I know of an officer who went from fifteenth to fourth after the oral boards. The fact that he was related to a commissioner had nothing to do with it I’m sure.

To show you how bad this can be let’s take four officers — officers A, B, C, and D. On the written exam, candidate A gets 95 percent, B gets 90 percent, C gets an 85 percent and D clocks in at 80 percent. The politicians want D. They award him 30 percent and know he will be at 110 percent on the final list. So they give A 14 percent, B 18 percent and C gets 22 percent. Now, D is on top. Also, because the spread in points doesn’t point to any blatant bias no other officers can file a suit. D gets promoted.

However, if 15 percent were awarded on merit, based on arrests or ticket production or calls taken, and 15 percent were awarded by the selection board the whole process becomes different. We can take the same scenario and this time we will award all officers 8 percent out of a possible 15 percent for arrests, tickets and calls. Now A is at 103 percent, B is 98 percent, C is 93 percent and D is 88 percent. With only 15 percent to award, the board can only raise D to 103 percent. This would tie him with A without A getting any points. If they give A at least one point, which they would surely have to do to avoid a lawsuit, A gets promoted, which is as it should be.

An argument could be made that merit points based on ticket production is a de facto quota system, and maybe it is, however, it certainly makes the selection process much fairer and rewards the workers and penalizes the butt kissers, who seldom do a lot of police work, which is also as it should be.

I strongly suggest all police associations ask for a meeting with the civil service commission and talk about these possible changes. If the commission appears receptive you’re in good shape. If the commission balks at any of the above, the fix is already in for the next promotion.

Good luck because you’ll need it.

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