Friday, June 29, 2012

Public Promoting From Within Both Good and Bad

This column originally appeared in the Sun Chronicle on June 29th, 2012

The difficult situation currently existing in the Attleboro Police Department highlights a problem with a common practice utilized in most local Civil Service public safety departments – hiring upper management strictly from within.

The Civil Service system, established in the days before strong unions and labor laws, continues to be in force in many communities. Today it primarily covers practices in police and fire departments, although it can apply to other positions. It affects hiring, firing, discipline and promotions involving department personnel.

When it comes to hiring chiefs and superior officers, Civil Service all but guarantees those spots will be filled via internal promotion rather than from outside. It does allow participating communities to fill positions such as chief with outside individuals, but places so many restrictions on doing so that it is virtually impossible. It is also a system that has become corrupt and obsolete, but that is a different discussion for a different day.

Former Attleboro Police Chief Richard Pierce was forced to resign almost two years ago after 32 years in the department. His departure was directly linked with his actions regarding an investigation of his police officer son, who was fired shortly thereafter. He was replaced by Kyle Heagney, a veteran lieutenant in the city squad. There was no search beyond the department or any attempt to bring in anyone else. Heagney had passed the Civil Service exam and became the 16th chief in the department’s history.

This is the process individuals inside the department obviously prefer. When you promote from within, a great number of people benefit at the same time. If a lieutenant moves up to be chief, a sergeant usually becomes a lieutenant. Then a patrol officer usually moves up to sergeant. Everyone gets a bump in pay, career advancement, and some important job security.

And there are definite advantages to the municipality by promoting from within. You get to keep a lot of the institutional knowledge the advancing candidates possess. The department and taxpayers benefit from the training they have invested in the officers over the years. And many believe it is simply the right and fair thing to do.

But there are also some serious problems. It often means change comes very slowly. You tend to get a continuation of the same general policies and attitudes, and the comfort level employees enjoy with their new boss can be an issue. Even with the best of professional leaders, it can sometimes difficult to suddenly be in charge of people you have worked alongside for years.

Sometimes complete change is a good thing. Infusing a workplace with new ideas, a fresh outlook, and a different set of career experiences can often transform a department. But it can also cause resentment because there is no corresponding series of internal promotions. In addition, many employees are not happy if the routine and rules they have followed for years are suddenly changed by someone from outside their tight-knit circle.

This is not to say or imply that Chief Heagney is not doing a good job. He inherited a mess, and is doing his best to clean it up. As expected, he is running into problems with his former union brothers who don’t appreciate the way some issues are being handled.

Those who stand to benefit personally always point out that it is in fact the public who benefits when trained local officers stay within the department. Then taxpayers recover the money they spent training them, and you get that extra level of caring that comes from living for a long time in the city or town you serve.

But at the same time, those employees maintain their perfectly acceptable right to go and apply for jobs in other departments when they become available. Applying for a chief position in another department is just considered taking care of yourself and your family. But why is it a good thing when one of “our people” takes a leadership role in another department, but a bad thing when a thorough search brings in a professional from another community?

When you never bring in new people to fill leadership positions, you can’t be surprised when the culture doesn’t change. It’s the fault of the system, not just the individuals.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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