Leadership Spotlight

Improving the Promotional Process

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Regardless of size or location, police departments across America deal with many of the same challenges. One issue has been how to determine the best process to promote qualified officers to first-line supervisors.

Often, a promotional exam is the first step.

One of the most difficult tasks in the promotional process is creating standardized testing, a system employed in such areas as collegiate admissions, government civil service, psychological measurement, and high school academic proficiency. As a means of bringing fairness and equality to all who take them, the exams seek to measure, through written words, a person’s skill or personality.1

However, those who take these exams may only need a certain number of years of police experience, depending on the state or municipality.

Overemphasizing the Scores

Typically, agencies only interview the three officers with the highest scores on the exam. The candidate fourth on the list is no longer in consideration for continuing the process. An interview is possible only if one of the top three officers drops out, moving the officer in the fourth slot to the third and allowing them to proceed.

Because supervisors are forced to choose from among this small pool of candidates who — regardless of police experience — scored highest on the exam, the demonstrated ability to lead receives less value. As a result, if a young, inexperienced officer is selected, the lack of on-the-job knowledge can create not only a rift among supervisors but also an environment that opens the department up to unnecessary litigation and/or civil lawsuits. Such a situation can also lead to agency morale issues among the officers who must work with the new, inexperienced leader.

In some departments, this practice does not stop at first-line supervisor positions but continues through all ranks, leading up to and including the chief. For every promotion, those making the top three scores get interviews. This results in leadership positions throughout the agency being filled by less qualified personnel.

Use of the civil service exam as a beginning point for promotions follows the bureaucratic, machine-like rigidity embedded in modern police culture, which still focuses on the routine and predictable. Rather than continuing to use the reason “this is how we have always done things,” law enforcement agencies should look for ways to improve the process in which officers are selected to first-line leadership positions.

Establishing Additional Criteria

When one looks at the organization as a machine, a deeper understanding of its nature and functionality can truly be attained. Exam scores are a necessary component, but these alone should not dictate the promotion. Agencies should consider the amount of emphasis placed on the exam versus the rest of the process.

A more fair and unbiased process will allow for additional focus on candidates with work knowledge. This can be accomplished through oral interviews with “in-basket” type questions that require interviewees to recall their training and experience to give an appropriate answer. Also, agencies can use outside evaluators with no knowledge of the candidates. Any promotion process must not include strategies that increase bias, whether real or perceived, during the interviews as interviewers seek to validate their initial thoughts or impressions of the officer.


Agencies should not overanalyze the final decision but balance it with an open-minded approach. Avoiding machine-like practices can improve the final product of leaders for departments. Police organizations should offer a roadmap to success for members to follow and establish additional criteria to consider when choosing new leaders.

“Police organizations should offer a roadmap to success for members to follow and establish additional criteria to consider when choosing new leaders.”

Captain James Nightingale of the Camillus, New York, Police Department, a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 279, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at jnightingale@townofcamillus.com.


1 Patrick J. Hughes, “Increasing Organizational Leadership Through the Police Promotional Process,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1, 2010, https://leb.fbi.gov/articles/featured-articles/increasing-organizational-leadership-through-the-police-promotional-process.