Last month we reported on William Armstrong, the new police chief of the town of Brookford, NC, who is only 24 years old. Chief Armstrong is not the youngest chief we have featured on Police1. In 2022, we shared news about the youngest police chief ever in the state of Ohio – and maybe even in the country – 21-year-old Sabin Ward.
How young is too young to be a boss? Our experts discuss this question. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
The basic rules: As in an actual debate, pros and cons are randomly assigned as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing issues from different perspectives.
Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department, where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as police chief in Colorado.
Joel Shults: The science of police leadership, if there is such a thing, has always fascinated me. So many paths can lead to these stars, or eagles, or whatever collection of collar and epaulet decoration is chosen.
I have seen officers patiently wait for their boss to die or retire, assuming they are the logical choice for succession. I have seen several leadership vacancies arise as a result of scandals or retirements, and a wide-eyed underling is suddenly installed on the throne. I have seen the merry-go-round of local candidates fail, outside candidates fail, then big city men take small departments and fail. I’ve seen executive hires based on the previous boss’s mistakes and hires based on a candidate who promises everything the politicians want to hear.
With rare exceptions, the law enforcement profession assumes that somewhere among today’s rookies, a CEO will emerge: Does that candidate need a college degree? Should they have served as a supervisor for “x” number of years? Or can a person with the requirements prescribed by the law, along with some common sense and people skills, have as good a chance as anyone else to be a boss?
Honestly, my experience tells me that it doesn’t take much to become a chief, but it takes an extraordinary person to be a really good chief. I say all that to say that age may be on the list, but not at the top of the list, on the list of characteristics that predict a successful chief tenure. With supportive peers, an inquiring mind and a mix of confidence and humility, a young boss might be just what a department needs.
Jim Dudley: Chiefs in America average over 46 years old and combined with their average tenure of just over 3 years, that seems about right. I have to say I would have more confidence in a more mature boss along with experience and ability. I remember from a Politi1 survey that officers preferred competence over other attributes. In other words, they preferred a chief who was smart, well-educated, and had empirical knowledge from experience rather than a career to make good decisions. It may seem biased to prefer an older person, but age is not the only reason. Obviously a 45 year old would have more experience than a 25 or 30 year old.
Numbers alone can create a situation where a very young person can land in the boss’s chair. After all, nearly 50% of all law enforcement agencies have 10 people or fewer.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some excellent 30 year old sergeants to rely on to make good, sound decisions in the field. As you know, taking on the responsibility of head of a department means that they must have the ability to be a trainer, a diplomat, a coach, a businessman and someone with the political acumen to navigate other department heads.
I realize we are in a hiring crisis where attrition is destroying some departments of veteran leadership, but so many things can go wrong with an inexperienced person taking the boss’s job over a more experienced member of the agency. Morale can be one of the biggest obstacles to a young boss taking control of the agency.
Joel Shults: It is difficult to argue for the advantage of experience, but we are not debating whether we should prefer an older and wiser chief, but whether we should discourage or forbid a younger one.
One thing we haven’t settled on is what we consider youth in the police executive world. We can find many examples of young people taking on big tasks. More than a dozen of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were 35 or younger. The average age of our military officers is under 35, with one-third under 30 and enlisted personnel in major duties, with over half under 25. Ages 20-30 comprise nearly a quarter of physicians practicing in the United States High school teachers under 30. up 15% of their profession, and around 1 in 5 lawyers are under 35 years of age.
Finding an early officer ready for the chief’s hat would be an exception to the norm, but finding an outstanding performer at a relatively young age in any field is not unheard of. We might even spend some time talking about the disadvantages of chiefs who have lost their enthusiasm and idealism, who have succumbed to the pressures of politics and who have the “survive until retirement” mentality compared to the young leader with nothing but the future ahead. .
Jim Dudley: I would never discourage anyone with the goal of becoming a chief from pursuing their dreams.
However, I would say that they should embrace each level of authority along the way and become a master of the position before moving on. I have seen so many ambitious individuals spend so much time training instead of working in the field to gain real world experience.
Each agency has a version of their Wonder Boy or Wonder Girl flying through the ranks. They often miss out on the experiences and lessons that will be invaluable in their training to be a great chief.
I fear that all appointed 24-year-old chiefs, even in small divisions, can only be put in a position to be manipulated by their village or town council.
Regarding your comment about the 18th century writers, where people in the 18th century lived to only 45 years on average, the 35 year old founding fathers probably sped up the process to get the Declaration of Independence signed as quickly as possible.
Joel Shults: Jim, I can’t disagree with your arguments, I just think we need to be careful about ignoring young applicants, expecting them to fail, and predicting that their idealism will be their undoing, as everyone seems to be in it cynical eye. by observers (not necessarily you – it’s the other people!).
A concept that I believe every police chief must understand and embrace is the acceptance of the reality that their careers are fragile and their integrity must prevail over their paycheck. Failure as a young police chief can be a catastrophic derailment of a promising police career. Of all the advice I could give a new chief candidate, it would be that their appointment must be earned every day, and the price of their integrity may be higher than they expect. Enthusiastic men and women welcome to apply!
Police1 readers react
- Experience is a double-edged sword. You have the knowledge of how things can go wrong so you know how to avoid problems before they happen, but sometimes with experience you get stuck in the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality and that’s not good . As a 29-year-old sheriff with only five years of law enforcement experience, I sometimes feel like I don’t have the knowledge or experience to make the necessary decisions, but that’s when I lean on other sheriffs or chiefs for advice. We are a small agency, fully staffed, with only two full-time assistants, both of whom have less than a year of experience. Our lack of experience may create problems for us in the future, but only time will tell.
Excellent article that provokes some good discussion. I work in the fire service, but we are very similar when it comes to the age and promotion debate. I remember a local man who was appointed to a career fire chief position at the age of 26. I think most people expected him to fail. He is now pushing 50 and is still a fire chief in the same agency. He is one of the most well-known, innovative and respected fire chiefs in the region and teaches at the National Fire Academy. He’s the guy all new brand managers turn to for mentorship. So I wouldn’t be quick to discount someone simply because of their age. If we had in my profession, we would have lost someone who has proven to be an exceptional leader.
Maturity does not always equal age. Experience is a better predictor of success. I was 32 when I was first appointed chief of a small town. I had some success in part because of my experience as a supervisor in a much larger department. I have now served 25 years as a chief in four progressively larger agencies, including my current role as State Police Chief. Each role provided the necessary building blocks of experience to progress to the next role. Therefore, experience may be more relevant than age.
Common sense should dictate the answer to this question as a whole, but that said, exceptionally capable, dedicated and modest individuals should not be excluded from the position of a chief. Really nothing can make up for life experiences and the knowledge that comes with it.
Age along with law enforcement experience. In their early 20s, a person is still gaining life experience to pursue a career in law enforcement. It would take an extraordinary person to take on the responsibility of being a leader at a very young age in this profession. However, the right person can become a very good boss regardless of age.
No, but the amount of work experience speaks volumes. I myself was a police chief at a young age in my career. Although I was in my early 30s, I only had three years of previous experience, which did not prepare me for the job. An experienced officer has a better chance of making a good boss than an inexperienced officer young in their career.
I am not opposed to and age requirement, but in the same way I took over my department as a 23-year-old and on 9 March I will be 29 years old at the helm.
Age should not play a role, but experience certainly should.
I was the chief of police in a small department of 29 and held the same position two different times in the same city. It is the quality of the person and the officers under them. Looking back 20 years ago to that time, I realize the mistakes I made and now at 50 would have seen things from a different perspective.
I guess age is just a number… sometimes. That said, the level of maturity and ability to make decisions, along with clerical, financial and people skills among many other skills, should play a role in selecting a boss. In 1991, I was 23 years old and was selected from a decent-sized pool of applicants to be the police chief of a police department in southern Illinois, not far from St. Louis, Missouri. I remained Chief of the fast growing community and department until I retired 28 years later in 2019. During the last 10 years with this department I have also served as Chief of Police in a small community located in a neighboring county. The other department was a part-time organization, yet came with the same responsibilities as my full-time department head position. Since my retirement from the larger department, I have become full time at the smaller agency where things continue to run smoothly. I would say not just anyone would fit as a junior boss or maybe even want to fill the role of a boss with a department regardless of their age. My tenure was filled with ups and downs, rewarding experiences and tragic incidents. But the one thing that most helped my successful career was and is a knowledgeable and dedicated team of officers and civilian staff along with supportive mayors, board members and of course a good working relationship with legal counsel.
Since it takes 10,000 hours to be competent in a skill, I’d say experience is a better indicator of success than age. If a candidate was a police detective at the age of 14, went on ride-alongs and learned from the veteran officers and became a non-sworn employee until they were old enough to be a police officer (some states only require a person to be 18) , this candidate will have 4 or 7 years of experience working in an agency. So by the time they turn 23 or 24, they could theoretically have 9 or 10 years of experience. So it could be sufficient to be a police chief.
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