Former Police Chief: Put Down the Big Stick
Former Police Chief: Put Down the Big Stick
By David C. Couper /

I keep thinking since the horrific police assassinations in Dallas that we’ve been here before. It’s not that so many police officers have been summarily executed. It’s that a palpable tension still exists between police and black people in our country, despite the efforts of police departments like Dallas to implement community-oriented policing and reduce their use of deadly force.

What were these Dallas officers doing at the time of their deaths? They were protecting the rights of citizens to assemble and protest the bad conduct of other police officers. That is what police in our society do, even knowing that other police are behaving so poorly in cities like Baton Rouge and St. Anthony Village, Minnesota, and too many other cities—bad apples who spoil the police barrel.

I am shocked, but unfortunately not surprised, by what happened in Dallas and in Baton Rouge and St. Anthony Village. We are a violent, militarized society in which the “big stick” has replaced our ability to talk gently to one another.

As a street cop in the sixties dealing with pressing demands for fair and equal treatment for blacks, monitoring anti-war protests, trying to deal with the grief, fear, and anger after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and watching a good part of my city at the time, Minneapolis, go up in flames, I knew things had to change. What we as police were doing was simply not working.

Like today, we had a presidential commission that made specific recommendations to improve the craft of policing. It was all about higher education, how police needed to work more closely with the community, and the need to integrate their ranks. We now see some of the results of that: cops are more educated, more diverse, and most try hard to do community-oriented policing.

When I was on the street there were no cell phone cameras, no internet, and public information was obtained in the community by way of a morning and evening newspaper and three televisions stations who reported newsworthy events daily at 6 p.m.

I was a chief of police for twenty-five of my thirty-three years in policing. Since my retirement I’ve kept an eye on police, wrote a couple of books, and maintain an active blog called Improving Police.

History tells me that when people are oppressed they eventually rise up and resist. Force, or its threat, never has been able to hold an oppressed people back.  As a white police officer, I participated in that oppression. Not that I intentionally oppressed black and vulnerable people, but I was part of a system that did so. While I arrested many persons of color over the years, I tried to be more of a peacekeeper than oppressor.

It was Dr. King’s assassination that woke me up. I was working the street on the night shift and working on a graduate degree during the day. It was then that I came to realize that unless I changed my approach to people of color in the black neighborhood I patrolled, someone was going to get hurt. I knew from Psychology 101 that when people are fearful, they either fight or flee. That applies to cops as well as citizens. So the problem I struggled with was how to reduce the fear in me and the fear I created in others, especially people of color, when I had contact with them.

I did this by immersing myself in the black community and worked at being accepted. It’s really all about proximity, about closeness; if we maintain racial separation in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social groups as we do today, not much will change.

One of my leadership mantras when I led the police in Madison was:

“Closer is better.”

And that applied not only as to how we were going to police protest groups, but also the entire community. We decentralized operations and sent single beat officers to patrol troubled neighborhoods on foot.

I came to realize what most good cops learn: the most effective tool police officers carry is on their shoulders. It is a unique brain that is mixes empathy and compassion with tactics and technique. When these work together you get a good cop.

Policing will not get better, nor will communities of color begin to trust and support them, until the good cops help to get rid of the bad ones. Good cops know who the bad cops are. They know bad cops are dangerous because they, for one, are unable to control their fear. Good cops don’t want to work with them because they cause trouble and endanger everyone. But too often silence reigns in the ranks.

Yes, police work is dangerous. I came to realize that I could be a target; that I was vulnerable in my uniform when I was on foot and in my vehicle when I drove on patrol. I came to realize that the only control I had was how I treated people. I resolved that while I was a visible target in a hostile community, I would not be the one to cause violence; that I would treat others fairly and with respect. And if I had to use force, I would use it properly knowing that when I had to use it, it was a last resort and absolutely necessary. That was how I became confident that at the end of my work shift I would safely return home to my family.

It would help if we, as a nation, develop an agreed-upon model for how police are to act in a free and diverse society like ours. President Obama’s recent task force on policing and the Police Executive Research Forum’s “Thirty Guiding Principles” tried to do just this, but police leaders have been slow to adopt it. There are a few recommendations that stand out for me: that the sanctity of life must be at the core of everything a police agency does, that respect is paramount, and the present low, “lawful, but awful” standard of police use of deadly force in the Supreme Court decision “Graham v. Connor” needs to be raised.

I have preached in the past that a good cop is college-educated, well-trained, respectful, honest, able to de-escalate conflict, highly controlled in the use of force, and willingly works with community members to solve problems.

What must happen now is that these police behaviors must be standardized and predictable to the community, particularly in communities of color. It must especially be so in these communities because people of color most often experience police action. And when police do not act in ways that are standardized and predictable, they can generate a great amount of fear.

Police leaders throughout our nation must most closely work with their communities of color, promise them that they will work to make this model the standard of policing in their city and, that police officers will be accountable in practicing it. This will help to reduce the fear most all people of color have when they encounter police. In addition, police leaders must assure all citizens that they will personally hold their officers accountable and that they want to know when they are falling short.

great nation such as ours deserves a great police. This will slowly, but surely begin to happen when the kind of police I describe begin to be the norm. Americans, all Americans, have a right to good policing.

There is a long and difficult road ahead of us. We know what it is because we have heard it before for so many years. The 1968 Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence(Kerner Commission) identified the problem: we are becoming two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal. It’s the same today.

Who will take the first step? I have always thought police could be the catalyst that would bring us together, to overcome the divisiveness and fear of each other. In the early seventies, I shared this vision with my officers. It was a way forward in a time of anti-war sentiment and civil rights activism. I kept preaching it over the years:

  • We need to decentralize police services and develop neighborhood policing… We need to get out of a centralized location and work closer to the people we serve. 
  • “We need to build a people orientation—a sensitivity to, and understanding of human behavior. Recruiting high-quality, educated police officers and training everyone, especially those in leadership positions, about this broader role for police. Traditional policing responded to problems but was not interested in finding their cause. Work with community members to prevent, diminish, and even eliminate crime and other community disorder. 
  • We will develop our capacity for conflict management and crisis intervention in addition to our traditional law enforcement duties. Reduce the acrimonious relationship that now exists between the police and community members… New strategies and tactics need to be taken to handle public protests by means other than tear gas and a nightstick.

Early in the nineteenth century, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” But today we know what happens when things stay the same. We can’t afford it.

Let’s move forward together. We know what to do.

My book, Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption, and the Seven Necessary Steps to Improve Our Nation’s Police, describes my journey which brought me from patrol officer to chief of police in seven short years.   In Minneapolis, I was a cop by night and university student by day during those tumultuous years in the late 1960s.  My formal education changed not only how I viewed the world, but also opened me to a new and radical idea of police being partners in improving American society. My book, released in 2012, takes the reader through the history of American police and their missed opportunities. It is an important work that needs to be read by those who wish to see our society live up to its professed values as well as for those who wish to serve those values as police officers.

Throughout my 30+ year police career I’ve had a burning desire to see police improve – I always thought police could be more than they were — like defenders our Constitution and Bill of Rights and “social workers in blue.” It all came together when I was appointed chief of police in Madison (WI). It was there that I spent over twenty years transforming the department into a national and international model. I ended the “war at home;” a bitter and brutal battle between protesters and Madison police during the Vietnam war years. But what makes this book different from other police books is that they are often about sensational crimes and incidents or about embarrassing or exposing police — not about improving them and certainly not over a twenty year period. I can “walk my talk” when I describe how I improved a city police department. Yes, police can be improved and they can, and should, protect our rights while continuously improving the systems in which they work. So, let’s start talking about it…

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Former Police Chief: Put Down the Big Stick