May 26, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at


In today’s COVID-19 Report, we hear from six new chiefs about the challenges and opportunities of taking over an agency during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Two of the chiefs took office in February, and the other four in April.  Only one of the six was hired from within the department.

Key Takeaways

-- Communication is more challenging now. In normal times, one of a new chief’s first priorities is getting to know community leaders and department employees.  Phone and video calls cannot fully replace in-person meetings, making communication a challenge. This is particularly true for chiefs who are introducing themselves to a new agency and community, and those who are trying to resolve sensitive issues. 

-- Chiefs should “over-communicate.” To make up for the shortcomings of phone and video calls, new chiefs should make a point of communicating more widely and more often than they otherwise might, to keep in touch with their employees and community members.

-- The crisis can be an opportunity to demonstrate leadership. This pandemic is a significant challenge for all agencies, so it’s an immediate opportunity for a chief to show how they lead during a crisis. 

-- New chiefs and community members may differ on police strategies. For example, the police role in enforcing social distancing orders is a controversial issue in many cities. For new chiefs especially, a delicate balance may be needed to lead the department while acknowledging community concerns.

-- Community expectations about crime don’t change during a pandemic. Residents expect chiefs to articulate a clear crime-fighting strategy and to carry it out, even though the pandemic may require some different approaches.


St. Louis County Police Chief Mary Barton:

I’m Working to Build Bridges to the Community, and Would Prefer In-Person Meetings

Chief Barton was sworn in on April 30.

I have been in this department 42 years and worked my way up, so I pretty well know most of the people in this department. But some recent lawsuits have caused a huge divide in the department.  It’s a real challenge to negotiate that problem and the pandemic at the same time. So I had to reach out and connect with people with a lot of Zoom meetings, when I would have preferred to discuss such delicate matters in person.

I wasn’t everyone’s choice for police chief, so on the day I was promoted, I talked with eight different news outlets about my vision for the police department moving forward and how I saw my role in the community. And I reached out by phone to many community leaders, particularly the ones who have issues with the police department. I’m hoping I’ve started that conversation and can move forward when we can finally meet face-to-face.

I don’t think technology can take the place of community meetings. When you sit down and interact face-to-face, you get a sense that you’re communicating with somebody who can see you, hears your message, and believes what you’re saying. I think a lot of that is lost with technology. I think you are more believable and accepted in person.

I told my officers that the COVID crisis is a perfect opportunity for the community to see the police as working on a very large problem that we have to work together to solve. COVID is an unseen enemy, and when you work together against a common enemy, you see each other as people. I think that can be the starting place for moving into better relationships with the community here in St. Louis County.


Boulder, CO Police Chief Maris Herold:

I’ve Been Surprised that Boulder Wants Strict Enforcement of Social Distancing

Chief Herold was sworn in on April 20. She previously served as the University of Cincinnati police chief and as a captain with the Cincinnati Police Department.

I moved from Cincinnati to Boulder during the pandemic, which was very challenging, including finding housing.

Internally Boulder is doing really well. The deputy chief did a really good job of stabilizing and separating staff, so we have not had any significant COVID-19 cases. I have tried to meet with all staff members for 30 minutes each.

It’s very challenging to meet with community members. I’m coming from a Midwest culture into a Western culture, and it’s a very different political structure than I’m used to. Not getting to meet people in person proves challenging.

What has surprised me is the community expectation of strict enforcement on social distancing and mask-wearing. It’s putting the police department in a vulnerable situation. My firm stance is to use education and warnings unless egregious behavior is taking place, and I’m getting a tremendous amount of pushback from the community. So I’ve been talking to the community about why an aggressive enforcement stance is not a good tactic in a crisis like this. A big part of being a police chief is telling the community about solid police strategies.


Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw:

COVID Is a Big Challenge, But Challenges Are Where Police Chiefs Thrive

Commissioner Outlaw was sworn in February 10. She previously served as police chief in Portland, Oregon, and assistant chief in Oakland, California.

Fortunately, I had 30 days in my new job before the pandemic hit, and I had already hit the ground running. I was meeting a lot of community members through our advisory committees, attending roll calls, and doing meet-and-greets with my commanders. I was getting out there and being visible.

I think we’re used to doing that, and here there’s an expectation that that will happen. The pandemic hit, and we had to develop new policies and procedures and do all the things that make leading through a public health crisis a full-time job. But there’s still an expectation to be seen, regardless of what that looks like.

I quickly learned that things I might have taken for granted technologically in another department aren’t necessarily things we have in Philadelphia. Not all our officers have department-issued cell phones. On our desktops, our monitors don’t have webcams. Not everyone is equipped with a laptop with a camera. We’re getting there, but we’re not quite there yet.

The pandemic really pointed out inequity of access. We’re building strategies around using virtual platforms or social media, but there are a lot of folks who don’t have internet access in this city. How do we maintain engagement and make sure I’m reaching those who need to be reached?

Community expectations about crime don’t change. They want to hear your strategy for making a crime problem go away. One option is to step up enforcement, but I’m trying to figure out the best way to limit interactions so we’re not putting ourselves or people we’re dealing with at risk. I have a draft violence reduction plan, but there are things in this plan that we’re not going to be able to do because we can’t interact with folks in the way we usually do. We still have to be up front and show that we’re still paying attention to crime during this public health crisis.

I think all of us who reach the position of chief, superintendent, or commissioner are well-versed in leading through crisis. This is where we thrive. We just have to continue doing what we can do, and manage expectations. Nobody is a super-person.

We’re all learning. The biggest lessons for me were leaning to over-communicate and not relying on things that were a given in my previous roles, like technology.


Franklin Township, NJ Police Director Quovella Spruill:

There’s a Lot to Learn When You’re the New Person on the Block

Director Spruill started her position on April 20. She previously served as chief of detectives at the Essex County, New Jersey Prosecutor’s Office.

I retired in 2018 as the chief of detectives in Essex County and started at Franklin Township on April 20. I was supposed to start at the end of February or the beginning of March, just as COVID started. We didn’t know how long it was going to last, so the mayor and town manager kept wanting to wait two weeks to see what would happen.  Eventually I asked if I could just start, because who knows how long this is going to last.

One of the biggest challenges is being the new person on the block. I’m learning new faces, new names, and new characteristics. On top of that we have a pandemic.

There’s almost no one in the building. One person per unit comes in per day, which can be a little hard. I asked for UCR stats, and the person who does that only comes in once a week. So you have to pace yourself with what you get done and how you make things happen. But for the most part, everyone is making it work the best we can.

The issues are just different here. I’m used to coming in to work and hearing about homicides and shootings. Now I come in and hear about a contractor’s supplies being stolen and a group of kids breaking into one of our historical landmark houses and hanging out.

When you come into a new organization, there’s a learning curve about what people are accustomed to. For example, drones are used by the fire department, not the police. I thought police could use drones to make announcements in the parks, but that didn’t go over well.


Asheville, NC Police Chief David Zack:

COVID Is Certainly an Opportunity to Show You Can Lead

Chief Zack was sworn in on February 3. He previously served as police chief in Cheektowaga, New York.

February 3rd was my first day on the job in Asheville after 33 years at my prior agency. By the end of March, we were into “stay home, stay safe.” So for a new chief there’s the personal upheaval of a big move like this, and you’re thrown into a crisis where you can’t rely on all the relationships you were used to in your prior agency. You’re meeting a whole new cast, and it’s tough to be meeting critical people at the outset of a crisis.

Before some of the restrictions on bigger meetings went into place, I was able to do a number of listening sessions with staff of various ranks. That proved to be very valuable, and I was glad I was able to get that in under the wire.

The pandemic does give you the opportunity to demonstrate leadership right out of the gate. Your personnel might normally be sitting back to see how the new chief acts, but with COVID it’s sink or swim right away, so you have an early opportunity to demonstrate your ability to lead in tough times.


Oakland Interim Police Chief Susan Manheimer:

Being an Interim Chief Adds Another Layer of Complexity

Chief Manheimer started her position on April 6. She previously served as police chief in San Mateo, California.

It’s really complex here in Oakland on a normal day, and it has been more challenging to arrive to an evolving shelter-in-place. I didn’t take over command here until April 6. The county’s health and shelter-in-place orders were in place, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for me to interact with the community, including important stakeholders like our police commission and council members. Those meetings have all been on the phone, through Zoom, or, if in person, through a muffled mask.

It’s been challenging, but there have also been some opportunities for me and others in our command staff to display leadership.

The biggest challenge I’ve had is coming in as an interim chief at a challenging time. We had a chief leave in an abrupt and controversial way. We had tensions simmering with our monitoring team. A lot of things came up very quickly, and I think building trust, credibility, and relational policing is the most important task right now. That’s been challenging for me, as the leader of the department, to do via Zoom and phone.

To enforce social distancing, I think there’s a lot of threading the needle, because different neighborhoods have different lenses and expectations. The COVID crisis has really highlighted the inequities within our more challenged communities. We see the pandemic hitting black and brown communities harder. There’s less access to PPE and the health system. We’ve adopted the mantra for our department that we’re going to be the reinforcers of the health and safety of our community, not the enforcers of the health and safety of our community.

We’re also seeing real spikes in violent crime in the areas where we’re seeing the disease hit most. We’re seeing a lot of people come back from prison, and they’re coming back early without reentry resources and other safety nets. There are changes in the conduct and patterns of crime, gangs, and groups, so it’s tougher and more complex to fight violent crime. We thread that needle, because there is no doubt that we are here to address the violent crime while enabling precautions and protections for health and safety during COVID.


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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