David Couper is a Christian and former police chief who integrated his department and brought in the idea of community policing. After leaving active policing, he went on to become an Episcopal priest and he began to blog at Improving Police (where he now has 200,000 readers). We were fascinated to talk with David and learn more about his journey.
Paula: I have a sense that the unwritten police code says that to challenge the police, is to betray them. How did you become willing to challenge your colleagues — and not only to challenge them, but to challenge them in public?
David: I found out quite early the way the police subculture operates – critics of the police are first ignored, then if those critics gain some traction, the police start to say bad things about them. In my case it is that I was out of touch and just trying to make money on my recent book – not that my ideas were valid and worth consideration. Thankfully, my audience became not just police, but the community as well, for a great deal of what I propose for reform are steps citizens can take to help their police improve.
I always felt a part of that small, but passionate, group of fellow police officers who pressed for for needed reform. I began my police career in a suburb of Minneapolis and after two years went to the city police department. They hired a hundred of us in a few months. We were more educated people and younger, and we banded together against the subculture … which was getting drunk on duty, beating people up, and other negative behaviors. I knew that things had to change.
Then I came to Madison, and thought this is a better culture but very traditional. But I quickly found my acceptance and survival was not to be in hands of the police department. I looked to the more liberal community and the broader Madison community, to help me along the way, which did in fact happen..
At the same time – this bothered those officers who were resisting change and improvements – I’ve got these street credentials. I was a tactical officer.I taught police defense at the academy and recruits would contact me for advice and ask, what about this, what about that? I worked on the street and was a highly experienced police officer. I’d worked myself up through the ranks, so they couldn’t say “you don’t know what it’s like.”
Really, the most dangerous time to be a police officer in America was the 1990s, when we started the drug war. We didn’t have protective gear; we didn’t have personal radios; our firearms only held 6 rounds. So when you got the call there was trouble, you couldn’t rely on being backed up. You had to negotiate and de-escalate the situation yourself..
Now it’s changed policing; policing has become more weapons and tactics oriented. We have body armor; semi-automatic firearms that hold 16 rounds… it’s almost like a military operation. This has been going on for 20 years, a slippery slope since 9/11. Our, government has put a lot of money and equipment to the police because the on-going fear of terrorist attacks
That reminds me. The other day, no, really it was the middle of the night, about 3 am, we woke up because our street was full of police lights. All up and down, ten or fifteen cars, and a tank. It turns out some teenagers had taken a SUV on a joyride. Why are we using military equipment on teenagers, in a residential neighborhood?
Well, you know. They’re symbolic terrorists.
What key experiences have you had, to develop your philosophy?
I used to work nights on the tactical squad in Minneapolis – it was called “The Flying Squad.” We reported directly to the #2 man in the police department.. All the time I was pursuing my BA at the University of Minnesota, then there was grad school. I was a major change-point in my life as I began to see the “big picture.” I had political activists in my seminars. In my studies I developed a sense of curiosity: who, where, what’s all this about? What IS the big picture here? Who is the ‘enemy’ in student protests?
When I came to Madison in 1972 staff officers tried to tell me that students are dangerous and I need to stay away from them, not talk to them because “ they’ll try to kill you,” but I felt quite comfortable talking to them and working with them on solutions. I knew what dangerous people were like from my time in Minneapolis. These were not dangerous people.
This conversation with staff officers happened shortly after I became chief in Madison, I went to a student meeting and introduced myself. Again colleagues tried to say I took my life in danger, just going – but I know when I’m in danger, that was not a dangerous situation. I told the I questioned their intelligence sources. I quickly realized that the plan was to keep me away from the community, to get me to buy into the idea that student activists are dangerous.
Instead, I put some of these activists on one of my community relations committees — why wouldn’t we want to do that? Talk to them, get to know them better.
From the start, I had a vision that police protect our Constitutional rights, and when that’s your vision you approach the job a lot differently than police do today.
I can to imagine police as social workers in blue; that they contribute to society, aid people in distress, and so forth.
Some police seem to have that ideal now. There’s that old police motto: “protect and serve.” Still, I notice “protect and serve” being taken off some police cars around the nation – why is that?
I’m not sure. Is servant leadership bad? Demeaning? I don’t think so.
David, aren’t you the one who integrated the Madison Police Department? How’d you do that?
Yes, when I became chief, there was one minority officer in our ranks, he had been adopted by a white family and was, to many, a “safe” hire. Close your eyes, you couldn’t tell the difference. But of course, being adopted by a white family doesn’t change the color of your skin. Out of about three hundred officers, there were no women in the patrol ranks. According to the new book “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works” by Jay Newton-Small, women can significantly can change an organization for the better if they have at least 20% representation in the organization or have three women on the organization’s board (two won’t have a signifiant affect). When I took over the department we had seven “police women” who had a college degree, but were not permitted to carry a firearm, nor could they apply for promotion – they only worked with juveniles and were considered “kiddie cops.”
First, we had to get them firearms, train them, let them know they had the same power as male officers, and then tell them they were eligible for promotion. One was interested, she went all the way up to assistant chief — Morlynn Frankey.
When I retired from the department in 1993 there were 10% minority officers, and 25% women – it took twenty years to get those numbers. I would challenge my recruiters with this caveat, “If you don’t present to me a recruit class that was at least a 50% combination of women and minorities I will not give you the go ahead. For many years, Morlynn Frankey led our recruiting and training unit. She made sure this happened..
Most departments, even Madison, cannot attest to having a top management team of at least 20% women. It is needed. Getting unrepresented persons in the ranks is one thing – getting them into the board room is another. Promotions come much slower, so I had to bring people up through the ranks. When the department elected an officers advisory counsel, they elected all white males. So when I went to our first meeting, I said, it’s nice that you guys have all been elected, but what are we going to do about representing other folks in the department – women and minorities? I was able to convince them to go along with the idea of saying let’s having ‘at large’ representation from women and officers of color. And they went along with it. That’s how Chief Noble Wray got his start along with Capt. Cheri Maples went I brought them onto my top management team. We needed to hear their voices and perspectives.
What’s your hope for the future?
I think what I envision will take about a decade. If we keep pressing on to implement the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and the “30 Guidelines” of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on use of force we will have restored trust and support in our nation’s police. And we cannot accept the current state of affairs where only one percent of our nation’s police departments require their incoming officers to hold a bachelor’s degree. This is simply unacceptable and was the recommendation of President Johnson’s Task Force on police over 40 years ago. Education and improvement have to go hand in hand. We must raise the bar on police use of deadly force in America and do it now.
The idea of sanctity of life and raising the standard is in the PERF report and the President’s Task Force takes on the idea that police must be guardians and not warriors. If these ideas prevail during coming years I have great hope for the future. If I see that all I once dreamed of and hoped for the police will not have been realized I will be extremely sad.
How do you reconcile your ministry with your police activism? I know being a social critic of a major institution like the police is often quite difficult. How did this unique combination emerge?
My maternal grandmother lived with our family for many years and was very influential in my faith (she was a strong Episcopalian and a women who graduated from college in the late 1800s). She was an activist suffragette and a lot of that took root in me. Social justice was a major part of my life as a police leader and my Christian faith continues to push me in that direction in spite of the pushback I often receive from police who really don’t want to think about changing their training in and use of deadly force. I clearly have heard the cries from women of color in our country — “Stop killing our children.” I think police have a moral responsibility to adequately respond to their cries and I am committed to offer ways in which they can respond and rebuild trust of our nation’s police. This call which arises out of my Christian faith drives me to do this.
Thank you David. May God bless you in both endeavors.
Readers, you can find more of David’s prophetic work at his blog, Improving Police, or his newest book, Arrested Development. If you find yourself in the Lake Country of Wisconsin, he pastors St Peter’s Episcopal Church.