David Couper has made Madison's police department one of the best in the world
Give me the top five reasons Madison is a terrific city. I’ll wait. Now, how many of you have one of the best police departments in the world on your list? Interesting. Among other assets that make Madison a great place to live is a diverse group of cops who are highly educated, well-trained, patient, compassionate and even-tempered. We have one person in particular to thank for it: former chief David Couper.
Couper came to Madison in 1972 to head up a police department that was white, male, military in style and appearance and best known for whacking anti-war demonstrators on their long-haired noggins. A lot of officers on the force at that time didn’t like Couper. Change did not come easily. But it came. And now the Rev. David Couper has written a book about it. Yes, Reverend. What is most striking about the timing of the release of the new book is the prevalence of news stories from around the country showing how little has changed in forty years, except here in Madison, where we take high-quality community policing for granted.
The book, Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police, had its genesis in a meeting of the nation’s police chiefs to which the retired Couper was invited in 2005. The primary discussion at the summit was to be on Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Couper read the book and was pumped to talk about what police could learn from it. But when he got there it quickly became clear few of his fellow chiefs had read the book, or cared what was in it. On the plane home a frustrated Couper started jotting down notes, and a book was born.
During the last couple of years Couper found himself with regular time on his hands. His wife, Sabine, a former state Capitol police officer, is living with a relatively rare cancer that requires hours of treatment each week. As Couper sat with Sabine he wrote. The result is a thoughtful, provocative, comprehensive view of law enforcement in the twenty-first century. Couper traces his personal and professional growth from Marine to police officer to preacher. His philosophy of law enforcement developed over time. He saw a lot of things he didn’t like. And he completely remade the Madison police department.
In 1999 Couper retired and was later ordained an Episcopal minister. As the book neared completion Couper began blogging on it and posting portions on Facebook. During that time we saw the now-iconic picture of the Berkeley cop releasing pepper spray directly into the face of a protestor sitting peacefully on the ground. We saw concealed carry of guns approved in Wisconsin. And of course we saw Trayvon Martin gunned down in Florida.
Couper’s book could not be more relevant. He laments the four major shortcomings that unbelievably still exist in American law enforcement: anti-intellectualism, a propensity for violence, widespread corruption and a lack of civility. He then outlines seven improvement steps and offers Couper’s Principles of Quality Leadership. And he provides examples of effective protest management from right here in Madison.
No police department is perfect. The relationship between the police and African Americans, like so many other racial issues in our culture, is deep and difficult. But there are fewer problems here than anywhere. Madison has an exceptional police department and it reflects its former chief to this day. The current chief, Noble Wray, was hired by Couper. Couper’s proud of this department. And he believes it is possible to have more “moral police organizations.” We just need to break through some arrested development.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.
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