Police chiefs in the largest cities across the country are leaving at an alarming rate since the beginning of 2020, a trend experts say creates a gap in leadership that serves as a hurdle in implementing criminal justice reform and long-lasting cultural change within their departments.
Since January 2020, there have been 39 police chiefs who have departed their roles for various reasons – retired, resigned or fired – among the 79 members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA), an organization of police executives representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada, MCCA Executive Director Laura Cooper said last week.
“We do expect a couple more by the end of the year. Even more have indicated that they have every intention of retiring in early 2022,” Cooper said. “It’s definitely an issue that we’re seeing because we’re talking about nearly half of our membership.”
A few of the cities that have experienced a change in police leadership include Portland, Oregon, Louisville, Dallas, Miami, Detroit and Boston. In California, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna and Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn have announced they are retiring in December, while three police chiefs in Houston, San Jose and Atlanta have retired to lead another MCCA member agency. These chiefs are not included in the 39 who have left their departments.
The turnover, according to Cooper, is indicative of natural attrition within departments as well as “borderline retirees” who have decided to leave due to political pressure or high-profile police killings.
There’s ‘enormous pressure for change’
Following weeks of turmoil over his relationship with city leaders and rank-and-file police officers, Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo on Monday was suspended “effective immediately” by City Manager Art Noriega, who said in a statement that Acevedo’s relationship with the department “has become untenable” and that city officials intend to fire him.
Acevedo’s suspension comes on the heels of city commissioners calling for his ouster during two contentious meetings on September 27 and October 1 to discuss his decisions and behavior that were deemed questionable. Acevedo wrote a bombshell memo to Mayor Francis Suarez and Noriega on September 24 in which he accused three city commissioners of interfering with reform efforts and a confidential internal investigation.
Acevedo, who took over the agency six months ago after retiring from the Houston Police Department, has propelled himself to the national stage as a police leader who has been highly vocal in discussions about police reform and public safety.
CNN has reached out to Acevedo and the MPD for comment but has not heard back.
In some cases, according to Cooper, a leadership change can bring about increased morale among officers and stronger rules for accountability and transparency with the community. Historically, a chief remains in the role for three to five years, which is enough time to effectuate change, she added, but that lifespan has decreased significantly.
Typically, there is a 25% turnover per year among police chiefs, according to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), which is hired by agencies to survey, vet and select candidates for chiefs. The increase is reflective of what’s happening nationally due to the “enormous pressure for change,” Wexler said.
Departments in larger cities have faced more pressure to make changes to their policies and culture over the past 20 months due to the pandemic, the national spike in violent crime, as well as the killing of George Floyd and the widespread demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice, Wexler said.
“Being a police chief in America today is maybe one of the most daunting jobs there is,” he added. “You have a lot of competing challenges – funding issues, violent crime issues, implementing de-escalation, and community trust issues.”
The swift changes in police leadership come as the federal government and attorneys general are enlisting courts to prompt cultural reform through stronger oversight. They are using more clear and concise use-of-force policies that emphasize the sanctity of life and imposing stricter rules on the authorization of deadly force. The Justice Department, under President Joe Biden, has announced investigations into the Minneapolis, Louisville, and Phoenix police departments this year.
Attorneys general in Illinois, California and Colorado have recently announced pattern and practice investigations into city agencies, one of the ways elected officials are using the investigative powers of their offices to effect cultural change in the post-Floyd era.
“We’re at a turning point in American policing where the next generation of police leaders has an opportunity to step up,” Wexler said. “So while there are challenges, there are great opportunities because policing is going to change but it’s going to be a function of this next generation.”
They’re leaving for a ‘whole host’ of reasons
There is a “whole host” of reasons why police chiefs are leaving their departments, Cooper said, but they continue to do so at an “alarming rate.”
“It takes a while to institute culture change, and certainly with the turnover that we’ve seen, it begs the question how much culture change can you get if you’re playing musical chairs with the leadership position,” she added.
According to Wexler, PERF “can’t keep up” with the number of requests from cities to help them select a police chief. The organization has helped agencies select chiefs in Maryland, Kentucky, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and for the US Capitol police force in recent years.
“People are looking for change, they’re looking for a new kind of leader, and that hasn’t been fully defined yet,” he added.
“Departments, increasingly, will look at themselves and the big decision will be, ‘Do we want someone from within the department or should we look outside?’” Wexler said. “I would say that decision is frequently a function of whether things tend to be going well, they’ll stay inside, but if they want a very different approach, they have been looking outside.”
Sacramento’s Chief Hahn, the first Black police chief in the city, announced in August that he will retire at the end of the year.
Hahn, who has been with the department for over two decades, served as chief for four years. He was leading the department in 2018 when two Sacramento officers fatally shot Stephon Clark, a 22-year-old Black man, in 2018. Federal prosecutors declined to file civil rights charges against the officers, who were later put back on active duty. Protests erupted in Sacramento after the incident and public outcries mounted after the US Attorney General’s decision.
Hahn, who is a Sacramento native, told CNN that being a police chief over the last two years has been especially challenging – at several times, he’s had police officers guarding his family in his home and he’s received “legitimate death threats” from people threatening to come to his home. The threats were at an all-time high during the protests following Floyd’s death, Hahn said.
“So that adds to the challenges and, at some point, you have to ask yourself how long do you want to put your family through this?” said Hahn, who has two teenage daughters who were attending virtual classes from the family’s home for a year-and-a-half due to the pandemic.
“I’m glad I was here for those challenging times because I don’t believe anybody can lead the police department in my home city with more care and concern for my city and my department than I can,” said Hahn, who added that he is looking for other types of meaningful work in his city.
Hahn said changes were already underway in the department before the Clark shooting, but even more changes came afterward, including an update to its body worn camera policy in 2019 to “assist in criminal investigations and prosecutions as well as civil litigation,” the policy states.
Being Black as a police chief and an officer comes with “unique challenges,” Hahn said, especially during the protests last year when Black officers, including Hahn, were called racial slurs and some were “disowned by their own community.”
“It’s not a police thing, it’s the state of the difference in race in our country,” Hahn said.
Officers are retiring, too
In Austin, Texas, Chief Brian Manley retired in February of this year amid calls to resign by city officials and members of the public after the city was hit with a lawsuit over police use of force during protests last year and the fatal police shooting of Michael Brent Ramos. The officer who shot Ramos was charged with first-degree murder earlier this year, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced.
In his retirement announcement, Manley said: “We may be imperfect, but I promise you the men and women serving you, serving our community, have hearts of gold and are here to serve you.”
Joseph Chacon was tapped to serve as interim chief for the department after Manley’s departure and was confirmed as the next chief by the city council this month.
The department, which has come under fire in recent years due to criticism over its culture and practices, started seeing a trend of officer resignations last fall, but that number increased significantly to 130 by early May, according to the Greater Austin Crime Commission.
But Austin is not alone. Nationally, a survey conducted in May by PERF found a 45% increase in officer retirements and a roughly 20% increase in resignations compared to last year. In 2020, 180 officers left the Seattle Police Department the same year that Chief Carmen Best retired.
Shreveport, Louisiana, is seeing a violent spike in crime, a troubling trend experts say is largely due to socioeconomic issues exacerbated by the pandemic and one that led the police chief to resign from his position. Police Chief Ben Raymond resigned in August ahead of a no-confidence vote called for by two Shreveport City Council members.
Raymond expressed his frustration in his resignation speech.
“To blame me as chief of police for the violent offenders that are running our streets is ludicrous.”
CNN’s Peter Nickeas contributed to this report.