A Call For Police Reform


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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. sisterhood

    “…taught to shoot and keep shooting multiple times at a person’s “center mass”—the chest and heart.”

    I often wondered why cops don’t shoot at someone legs, to bring them down. I understand if the person is pointing a gun at you. But if it is an unarmed person or someone with a knife, why can’t the cop back away or perhaps aim at their legs or at the arm that’s holding the knife?

    I’m proud to say in over ten years on the force in Massachusetts, majority of those years in Boston, my dad only discharged his weapon once, at a rabid, aggressive  dog.

    1. hpierce

      You obviously don’t have much experience firing pistols.  Perhaps a sniper with a rifle can figure out how to hit an arm or leg while the target is moving.  Not so much with a pistol.  See how much easier it is to move an arm or leg than your torso.  If you have to fire a weapon, you want the maximum chance to hit your target.  Medics in WWII were issued 45’s, as they figured that they were unlikely to make an accurate shot, but if they hit ANY portion of the enemy, the enemy would probably be knocked down, if not killed.  If you have the luxury of taking careful aim to hit an arm or a leg, you probably don’t need to discharge your weapon.  At all.

      If I ever felt it necessary to discharge a weapon at someone, I wouldn’t want to miss, with the possibility of my bullet doing unintended harm to a bystander, etc., or my shooting and missing, just pissing off my adversary even more.

      Now the concept that once you have to fire, you ’empty your clip’, I don’t get.

      1. Biddlin

        I have used a model 1911 45.  At any range I’d consider shooting, I believe I could hit a shoulder or a leg from a two-handed combat stance. It would still have a high likelihood of fatality. Any time a weapon is fired, the result is likely to be deadly. Police routinely fire in error and violation of department policy. The most egregious recent example might be the two newspaper delivery women in Los Angeles who were barraged by 103 bullets from eight officers’ guns. Subsequent civilian and department review showed “there were ballistic impacts located on seven homes and nine civilian vehicles, which consisted of both gunshots and shotgun pellets.”



        1. sisterhood

          I remember that case. Such a shame the cops didn’t really look at the make & model of their vehicle, and who was driving it. Such a shame they didn’t fire perhaps ten bullets, perhaps aiming at the innocent women’s tires,  instead of the ridiculous amount they did fire.  That is an example of why I have no shame in often describing cops, both male and female, as macho.

      2. PhilColeman

        Both of the preceding comments contain legitimate questions, while revealing some unawareness of the reality of all factors involved. Possibly, I can shed a tiny glimmer of light on the narrow matter of a law enforcement officer in a combat situation, armed with a handgun.

        Shooting somebody with a handgun, even at very close range, is remarkably difficult to do. Go out to an outdoor range. Stand 6-feet away from a human silhouette target. Aim for the heart and squeeze off all the rounds in the weapon.

        Ask any certified Range Master for verification. The likelihood is that you will miss the target completely! If you try to just shoot a leg, I can guarantee that if you hit it with one shot, it was an accident.

        That’s why police professionals are required to do qualify-shoots periodically, usually quarterly. Again, it’s really hard to hit what you’re aiming at with a handgun, especially if you toss in a nice shot of adrenalin and noise, which is always present in a combat situation.

        Now, to the “empty-clip” claim. Not true. Maximum accuracy and speed is best achieved by the “double-tap” or “triple-tap” pattern. An officer is trained to aim for center mass, two or three quick shots, pause and re-aim, and repeat until the suspect is down or clearly disabled.

        Then, the officer lives, and unquestionably will receive another form of punishment that is not fatal, but sometimes almost as damaging. Relentless criticism and a life-time self-examination of “Could I have done something else?”, even when it was a “good shoot.”

        1. Tia Will


          I can shed a tiny glimmer of light on the narrow matter of a law enforcement officer in a combat situation, armed with a handgun”

          I appreciate your input and expertise in this area. I think that by the choice of words “in a combat situation” you have identified a large part of the issue. I think what Mr. Couper may be addressing is the problematic nature of how police are trained to identify and deal with potential “combat situations”. Is it more prudent for a police officer to be trained to accurately identify what is already a “combat situation” from a situation that might be de escalated by the choice of another strategy such as strategic temporary withdrawal while awaiting back up ?  It also might be useful to have police officers trained in one basic principle that surgeons use in an apparent crisis. First, take your own pulse. Many circumstances that are adrenaline and fear driven can be defused if one uses techniques to override one’s adrenergic impulses.

          Of course, this would not apply in instances when a criminal was wielding a gun, but it might well apply if they were wielding only a wallet, or a cell phone, or their fists, or a knife,  or perhaps nothing all of which we have heard of in recent incidents.

  2. sisterhood

    We could get into a handgun debate but neither of us will ever change our minds. You’re right, I’m a pacifist, have never used a handgun. Not needed in my life.  I used to use a hunting rifle in the Willamette Valley to pheasant/deer hunt. The police took our rifles when they ransacked my family member’s home. The Winchester with a Bausch and Lomb scope was my son’s, and a very old heirloom hunting rifle that his grandfather willed to him was also confiscated.  We decided to leave them at Solano Co. Too much paperwork, money  & heartache to get them back.  I’m sure some cops are enjoying those rifles right now.

    Now I no longer hunt birds or deer. I believe in self defense, large dogs, and pepper spray to defend myself. A co-worker lost her young child in an accidental handgun incident in her home, that pretty much sealed the deal for me. I wouldn’t even allow my kids to play in a home with guns and ammunition present.

    I guess the cop in the movie Fargo who brought the murderer down by aiming at his legs was just a fluke or a Hollywood fictional tale. I wish more cops were like her character.

  3. Tia Will

    We frequently see clips on line of violence perpetrated on and by police officers. As a refreshing contrast, I happened upon a clip of a police officer, uniformed, playing ball with some middle school aged appearing boys in a park.

    For me, this is preventative policing at its finest. It is an embodiment of the concept of crime prevention through community policing. It reinforces the concept of a police officer as an agent of protection instead of an enemy to be avoided or worse yet, attacked.

    We have a definite schism in our society in our views of the most appropriate role of the police that is made clear by comments on various threads. We have a school of thought that perceives “they are the law”, and portrays the police as the “good guys” in a “good guys vs bad guys” simplification of one aspect of the police role, that of law enforcement. I find this an unnecessarily bleak view of our society as well as a misrepresentation of actual risk. We have a second school of thought that is frequently misrepresented as “soft on crime” when it reality, it is a belief that most crime could and should be prevented primarily and that this would be possible through changes in our social structure and our means of dealing with those who do break the law depending on the nature of their infraction. This view is reflected in Mr.Couper’s point about changing how new police officers are trained.

    As humans, we are notoriously poor at making statistically accurate risk assessments. Locally we see reactions to events in other communities as though they represented the actual risks faced by our officers here in Davis. As a doctor, I do not see the world through rose colored glasses. My career has made me very aware of the importance of acknowledgement of actual statistical risks. However, I am also keenly aware that an outbreak of Ebola in Africa does not equate to the need for panic stations here in Davis. I strongly believe that police activity should be preventative and protective first, and that when these efforts prove inadequate, the police response should be proportional to the local degree of threat, not a fear driven response to what we see occurring in other communities.

    1. Clem Kadiddlehopper

       I strongly believe that police activity should be preventative and protective first, and that when these efforts prove inadequate, the police response should be proportional to the local degree of threat, not a fear driven response to what we see occurring in other communities.



      You are so spot-on. Guns and pepper spray are used far to much. We need to bring back the old school ways of collaring criminals.



      1. tribeUSA

        CK–yes, nice video! Funny that batons are rarely if ever mentioned anymore in newspaper accounts of arrests–aren’t they still part of a policeman’s equipment in most places? Though a baton might be considered brutal nowadays; surely it is less brutal than a gun? I suppose the main downside of using a baton against a suspect is the suspect then pulls out a hidden gun faster than the cop can get his out.

  4. sisterhood

    “… an outbreak of Ebola in Africa does not equate to the need for panic stations here in Davis. I strongly believe that police activity should be preventative and protective first, and that when these efforts prove inadequate, the police response should be proportional to the local degree of threat, not a fear driven response to what we see occurring in other communities.”

    I like your Ebola analogy. Well written.

  5. tribeUSA

    I agree with the notion that police should be trained on de-escalation techniques; to diffuse and calm down tense situations when possible–at the same time it must be recognized that this is not always possible or practical; there are some suspects who want to be combative–nevertheless I agree that more of an emphasis on development of de-escalation skills by cops would be a good thing (though I think many cops are naturally good at this, some aren’t and could use some training!)

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