David Couper served as chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin, from 1972 to 1993. Now he is part of the growing chorus calling for reform and the restoration of trust in our police.
In an article that will appear in the June issue of the Progressive, he talks about a letter that he sent to Barack Obama shortly after the November 2008 election. Here he warned of the increasing militarization of this nation’s police force.
“Nothing is more endangering to a democracy than the militarization of its local police,” the letter said. “Our police play a vital role in who we are as a nation. We will not have justice in our courts unless it is first a working value of our nation’s police.”
The letter also urged Obama toward “a re-examination of where our nation’s police are today, where they need to be, the kind of people we need to police our communities, and how police should be educated, trained, and deployed. This must be done before it is too late.”
He calls the use of deadly force by police across the country a “national disgrace.” He writes, “We have been overwhelmed by the all-too-frequent deaths of black men and persons with mental illness at the hands of police. It has happened in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Albuquerque, North Charleston, Baltimore, and even Madison, Wisconsin, where I served as chief of police for more than twenty years.”
“Were it not for the advent of new technologies, like cellphones that take video, many of the incidents documented above would have been lost in doctored police reports, organizational denial, and cries of “support our police.” It is difficult not to be stunned after viewing the videos,” he continues.
This is not about “bad cops,” he writes, “but rather “a bad system of training.” And while it’s a vast problem, the good news, he says, is “[it] is a correctable one. But solving the problem must start now,”
The problem that he sees is really one of militarization of the police.
He writes: “Since 9/11, our nation has lived in a climate of low-grade fear. Our decade-long military adventures abroad have led to the creeping militarization of our nation’s police at home. Police have gone from being the guardians of our democracy to being our homespun warriors. It is not an appropriate shift: Police guard and protect us; a warrior’s job is to kill our declared enemies.
“Our nation’s Constitution declares the values of life and liberty, and our Bill of Rights asserts we are not to be deprived of life or liberty without due process. While we affirm these values as a people, we have not always practiced them as well as we should.”
“The questionable killings by police drive home the point,” he writes. “Police in some communities have lost the confidence of those they are sworn to protect and serve. They are seen as threats to justice, not agents of it. That is bad for everyone, including cops.”
Like many, Mr. Couper argues that the police need to rebuild the trust that they have lost. By doing so, “they will be more effective, their work will be personally rewarding, and they will be safer. But this will not begin to happen until their system of using deadly force is fixed.”
At the same time, so many want to try to separate this conversation from the issue of race. However, as he makes clear – “It is impossible to have this discussion without acknowledging the role of race. Police in America practice often two styles of policing: one for people of means, mainly whites, and another for those who are poor, racial minorities, immigrants, or mentally ill.”
Remember, this was a long-time police chief speaking.
He then looks squarely at the white skeptics: “When I talk publicly about the problem of deadly force and disrespect, many white people look at me with puzzled eyes. They don’t know what I am talking about because, as it turns out, they have had little, if any, contact with police.”
However the same is not true for the people of color he speaks to. “They know—and they know all too well. Recent discussions have helped us understand that ‘unconscious bias’ is inherent in our species; what is needed is being able to identify and manage it.”
“I came to Madison in 1972 as a young, reform-minded police chief. The department I inherited was mostly white, traditional, and battling with students and young people over the war in Vietnam. Of 300 officers, one was African American. Within the patrol ranks, there were no women. The seven women we did have were unarmed juvenile policewomen, who were required to have a four-year college degree. Policemen, on the other hand, were required only to have a high school diploma,” he continues.
At that time, “One of my most important improvements, along with trying out new and softer ways of handling almost daily protests, was to integrate the department. I announced that one-half of the new officers we hired must be women and officers of color. This became our hiring standard for the two decades I led the department.”
“When I retired, twenty-one years later, 10 percent of Madison police officers were African American and 25 percent were women. It took that long and that level of commitment,” he writes. “We also saw to it that women and minorities were afforded fresh opportunities within the department with regard to assignment and promotion. I believed in diversity because I knew that a diverse police department will do a better job working with the community and be safer for its officers.”
David Couper talks about the task of “transforming the police.” He likens it to what management “guru Peter Drucker once said: Leaders have to be ‘monomaniacs with a mission.’ They must also be persistent, patient, and passionate. One of my mantras in those early days was, ‘Let’s make the changes we need and not have the court make them for us.’”
“While I am glad to see many of our nation’s larger departments have been forced to change through ‘consent decrees,’ I remain concerned that this is what it took for change to occur,” he continues. “Looking at Ferguson and Baltimore, and the need for many police departments in our nation to better represent those they serve, I worry if they will have the long-term tenacity to do what we did.”
“Leading an organization-wide transformation is a difficult and often painful process,” he acknowledged. “When I proposed the changes that I believed were necessary, they were met with resistance. Many of the old guard employees were not happy. They felt I was giving up control of the organization. Of the ten top commanders, I had the support of three of them.”
“How did we get to where we are today?” he asks rhetorically. “It seems we unknowingly fell into a system of criminal justice in America that has become oriented more toward domination than problem-solving, more toward arrest and incarceration than prevention and treatment, more toward using coercion rather than earned authority to get their work done.”
“I am not the first person to identify systems of social and economic domination, collective actions that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of those who are not. The criminal justice system is just one of our many domination systems,” he continues.
David Couper writes: “It is my opinion that in order to restore trust between police and the communities they serve, we need to begin to heal the relationships between blacks and police. If this fails to happen, our present system of policing will continue to erode away the foundational values of our great society, and we will end up with police who look and act like those in nondemocratic countries.”
Mr. Couper also dispels some myths. For instance, “While policing is a dangerous occupation, it is not as dangerous as many people think. The incidence of fatal injuries for police is much lower than for other professions, including loggers, fishers, roofers, and airline pilots. Sadly, over the last decade, an average of 150 police officers have lost their lives each year in the line of duty, to causes ranging from gunfire to traffic accidents.”
In contrast, he writes, it is estimated that an average of more than 900 U.S. citizens a year are killed by police; that is between two and three people per day. While more whites than nonwhites are killed by police, a recent analysis found that blacks are three times more likely to meet this fate than whites. Tracking these numbers is difficult because there is no federal requirement for police to report information on the people they kill.”
He continues: “One problem is the legal standard for the use of deadly force, as established by a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor. The court’s ruling is quite broad. It permits a police officer to use deadly force when, in the mind of the officer, the person poses an ‘immediate threat to the safety of the officers or others.’”
Making matters worse is the questionable instruction given to police recruits.
Mr. Couper writes, “They are taught that a person armed with an edged weapon and within a twenty-one-foot distance can kill them before they can discharge their firearm. And police, when confronted with situations they believe merit the use of deadly force, are taught to shoot and keep shooting multiple times at a person’s ‘center mass’—the chest and heart.”
A much better approach, he suggests “would be for police leaders to affirm their department’s commitment to the sanctity of life and discuss how they are going to change their policies and practice to reduce the use of deadly force. The public needs to know that their police are trained to de-escalate and manage conflict situations; that they are able to control their fear, and be respectful to everyone with whom they come in contact, regardless of their station in life.”
“Police are here to represent us. They may tell us that using deadly force in these situations is legal, and, therefore, permissible. However, if they do that, we need to tell them that even if it is permissible, it is not moral, and it is no longer acceptable,” he concludes.
—David M. Greenwald reporting