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The New DHS Secretary: Time to Pick a Top Cop for a Tough Job

With President Barack Obama returning to the White House from his annual summer vacation, with any luck over the next couple of days we will have the name of a nominee to be the next DHS Secretary.  Even if that person were named first thing on Monday morning, with Congress on its summer recess and the whole nomination process still to painfully unfold, the fact is we will have an Acting, Acting Secretary for Homeland Secretary come September. With current Secretary Janet Napolitano due to depart DHS to begin her new role as president of the University of California system in early September and the deputy secretary position being filled by Rand Beers on an an acting basis until Alejandro Mayorkas is officially confirmed by the U.S. Senate, we will have an unprecedented “Acting Acting” position serving as the leader of one of the country’s most sensitive posts.

As tenuous as that might be, finding the right person for the toughest job is not easy, and needless to say the White House Personnel Office has its hands full in trying to fill more than a dozen highly sensitive and important leadership positions at DHS. We all know the various notable names that have been batted around for the S1 job – Thad Allen, Ray Kelly, and so forth. Former USCG Commandant Thad Allen is without a doubt at the top of everyone’s short list, but if he isn’t tapped (or does not want the position), what other options do the president and his team have to fill one of the toughest jobs in the country? Here’s one I’d like him to consider – a top cop.

Police chiefs and police commissioners have to lead a number of sworn officers to respond to any number of situations, all the while having to deal with the ever-present politics of the front office (e.g. the mayor, city hall, city councils), constituent/citizen demands and complaints, and dealing with tough budget situations to pay, equip, and train the personnel under their command. Let’s also not forget they have to tend to the beasts of all beasts – the insatiable news media.

This would be a different pick from the previous office holders in DHS’ top job. Two governors and a federal judge are notable enough in their experience for the DHS position, but a cop, specifically a police chief or police commissioner of one of the country’s larger cities, would be a new step for DHS to take in the evolution and maturity of the department’s mission and reach. Let’s face facts first – every emergency begins with a 9-1-1 call, and other than the immediate persons that are there when an emergency occurs, it is police and fire/rescue personnel that are first to respond to the scene.  In terms of police, like their fire department counterparts, they have to immediately assess the situation and, based upon their training, observations, and instincts, outline how they are going to respond. This not only involves decisions on public safety but also and oftentimes legal circumstances – hence why I give the edge to a top cop over a top firefighter for the top DHS position.

William J. Bratton

Former top cop in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York, William J. Bratton is the author’s personal favorite for a new DHS secretary. Photo by Eric Richardson

Police chiefs and police commissioners have to lead a number of sworn officers to respond to any number of situations, all the while having to deal with the ever-present politics of the front office (e.g. the mayor, city hall, city councils), constituent/citizen demands and complaints, and dealing with tough budget situations to pay, equip, and train the personnel under their command. Let’s also not forget they have to tend to the beasts of all beasts – the insatiable news media.  These individuals also have to be that voice of reassurance and calm to the public when responding to events that can be absolutely big to the utterly small. If any of these qualities sound familiar, it’s because they are very similar to the duties that a DHS secretary has to fulfill as well. Granted, the DHS secretary’s job is a whole lot more different and complex than being the sheriff of Mayberry, but the truth is, they have to lead through similar circumstances, just on a different scale.

So who is out there that has these skills?

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...