New Sheriff in Town? Advice for the First 100 Days

The midterm elections are over, and across the country, newly elected sheriffs are getting ready to take office. Several Lexipol staff members have sheriff’s office experience, so we reached out to them for their thoughts on priorities for a sheriff’s first 100 days.

Be Prepared for a Change in Perspective
Anyone who successfully runs for public office experiences the dramatic shift from campaigning to serving. New sheriffs take one of two routes to the job—you come from completely outside the agency, or you mount your campaign from within the chain of command. Either way, the position will present challenges you likely didn’t anticipate on the campaign trail.

“Regardless of how you get there, the view will be different than what you had before,” says Bill McAuliffe, who has 22 years of sheriff’s office experience, retiring as a lieutenant. “If you’re an outsider, during the campaign you have advisors telling you what they think and what changes you need to make. If you’re an insider, you’re looking at the current sheriff thinking you can do a better job. Even if you were the undersheriff, the view is always different when you sit in the big chair.”

As your perspective changes, you may find yourself in a dilemma: You campaigned on a certain issue or made promises based on what you thought you knew about the agency. Maybe you argued against the previous sheriff’s policies or pushed to change working conditions. But as sheriff, you will begin to see why things were done a certain way, and in some cases you may realize change is not warranted.

Faced with having to admit you’re wrong or cling to your campaign promises, what’s the best way to go? “It’s the mark of a true leader to say, ‘I had a certain belief, but now I see it a different way because I’ve seen it for myself,’” McAuliffe says. “Demonstrate that you won’t be dominated by any one faction, but that you’re going to understand the different perspectives, bring them all together with the facts and make educated decisions.”

Perform a Thorough Assessment
Newly elected sheriffs will feel pressure to initiate changes and show results quickly. Moving too fast, however, can be a mistake. It’s often more effective to take a period of 60 to 90 days to fully assess the agency and gather the information you need to make the right changes, rather than making changes to appease those who supported you. If you make a bunch of quick changes, you may find yourself branded a “flip flopper” later when you have to reverse some of them—or worse, you may dig in your heels and refuse to make adjustments despite having learned new information.

“Trust those who were operating the agency before you got there,” McAuliffe says. “If there are big issues involving safety or liability, address those, but otherwise take your time. Ask simple questions, probing questions. And ask a lot of them. There’s always something to learn.”

“Very few sheriffs take office thinking about policy, but the best thing they can do for their constituents and their deputies is to provide them with policies that reflect the best thinking within the industry.”

McAuliffe also advises taking a “no rank in the room” approach, inviting open feedback from anyone in the agency. “When I took over a new jail, I went in and told my entire staff I was just observing, asking questions, watching what deputies were doing, so I could fully understand what was going on,” he says. “I invited anyone to come into my office and tell me what I needed to know, not what they thought I wanted to hear. That empowered the people who worked for me. They saw there were things I could influence after I had the necessary information, and in turn they saw I trusted them.”

A useful model for assessing your agency is the 5 Pillars. Pioneered by risk management expert Gordon Graham, the 5 Pillars represent areas central to law enforcement operation—and therefore they can be strengths or liabilities. They are:

  1. People—Recruitment and retention practices, opportunities for professional growth, how the agency is viewed by internal and external stakeholders
  2. Policy—Whether the agency’s policies cover all state and federal laws and reflect law enforcement best practice
  3. Training—Whether training meets state requirements, the process for documenting and verifying training
  4. Supervision—Established chain of command and reporting structure, clear response strategy in place for a critical incident such as an active-shooter situation
  5. Discipline—How citizen complaints are handled, whether disciplinary processes are clearly documented and followed

Although it’s possible to conduct this type of assessment on your own, you may want to consider using a third party both for the objectivity it can provide and for the time savings. Lexipol offers a comprehensive agency risk assessment service that evaluates the agency in detail for each of the 5 Pillars, then provides an assessment report with an action plan and assistance in implementing the recommendations.

Although making significant changes in the first 100 days is best avoided, you can look for opportunities to make small but meaningful improvements that can have a positive psychological impact. It can be as simple as a fresh coat of paint for the office lobby, installing plants at the front desk or starting a coffee service for the staff. These small gestures can satisfy the desire for change and set a positive tone for changes to come.

Review the Agency’s Policies
One essential element of assessing the agency is reviewing the policies and practices that provide the foundation for your operations. Many sheriff’s offices operate with outdated, inconsistent or even nonexistent policies. But even if your policies are in good order, it’s critical you review them closely to ensure you understand what you’re asking your personnel to do. “I didn’t campaign for office on policy and I’ve never seen a sheriff’s campaign based on policy,” says Rod Mitchell, who served 16 years as sheriff of Lake County, Calif. “But when I took office, I learned about the importance of policy in my first deposition.”

A policy review can be conducted internally, or you may choose to bring in an independent third party. Both approaches have pros and cons. “People elected you to make good decisions, so they’re hoping you know what good policy looks like and can do the review yourself,” says Tim Evinger, who served three terms as a sheriff in Klamath County, Ore. “But hiring a third party can send a message that you have no agenda other than best practices and what’s best for the citizens, which can be very powerful.”

“There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with the position. You have to check your ego at the door.”

Regardless of which approach you take, start with the policies that deal with high-risk, low-frequency events, as well as those that have an impact on personnel safety or liability. Again, strive for an open mind. “Think about the philosophy used when the policy was being crafted,” McAuliffe says. “Question but don’t challenge. There will be people in the agency who put a lot of hard work into those policies and if you’re critical right off the bat, you’ll undermine their trust.”

If the agency’s policies are very outdated or provide only minimal guidance, you’ll be faced with the challenge of developing new policies. This is a huge undertaking. Most agencies don’t have the resources for full-scale policy development, but fortunately there are resources you can draw on. Many law enforcement leaders coming into their positions have found success by working with Lexipol to adopt a new body of policy content. Because Lexipol provides comprehensive, legally defensible policies, sheriffs can focus on customizing the policies for their agency rather than on researching and writing policies from a blank slate.

Adopting best practice policy content also takes individual opinions and egos out of the process. “Developing policy on your own is not a bad thing, but it is not the same thing as adopting independently drafted content you customize for your use,” Mitchell says. “I wish I would have worked with Lexipol on policy content when I was still a sheriff. There’s no personal identity wrapped up in the policies. They’re written the way they are because that’s the law or the best way to operate. Very few sheriffs take office thinking about policy, but the best thing they can do for their constituents and their deputies is to provide them with policies that reflect the best thinking within the industry.”

Understand the Uniqueness of Your Role
Success as a sheriff lies not only in effectively running the agency, but also in respecting the unique position the office holds in the community. As sheriff, you’re accountable to the people. It may be the first time in your career you have no real boss. The citizens provide oversight because they can vote you out of office, but it’s hardly like reporting to an individual or a board.

The independence can be both terrifying and exhilarating. You may be riding high after being successfully elected, but it’s important to remember you serve everyone, even those who didn’t vote for you. “You won a majority of the vote, but that still leaves up to 49 percent of the people who didn’t support you,” Evinger says. “You have an uphill battle, a lot of people to convert. And you feel that accountability every day. You hear from the citizens in calls, emails, etc. At the end of the day, there’s nowhere to point blame—it all falls on you. It feels a bit lonely.”

He advises reaching out to sheriffs from other counties and to rely on mentors for perspective: “The network of peer sheriffs and colleagues from other counties is very important and very strong. What you often find is everyone is dealing with the same issues, just different specifics.”

The unique nature of the sheriff’s role also affects the deputies who report to you. “A deputy does not have state-granted power like a sheriff does,” Evinger says. “Power is transferred to the deputy from the sheriff. So every deputy is in fact representing the sheriff. It’s really important they remember that every day.” At Evinger’s agency the deputies’ business cards stated they were representatives of the sheriff.

It’s also important to remember citizens often fail to distinguish between the roles of police chief and sheriff. “The layperson doesn’t always realize there’s only one sheriff in the county,” Evinger says. “The police chief works for other administrators, but a sheriff is selected by the people. There is no boss, no additional layer of government. There’s no board making the decisions—you are. And that’s something you continually have to educate the people about.”

Ultimately, being accountable to the people requires some humility. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with the position,” McAuliffe says. “You have to check your ego at the door. Enjoy the honeymoon period—you worked hard to get elected—but let the reality of the position settle in.”

Shannon Pieper

SHANNON PIEPER is senior director of Marketing Content for Lexipol and former editorial director for PennWell Public Safety, publisher of FireRescue magazine and Law Officer magazine.

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