Isthmus Interview

Former MPD chief David Couper takes modern policing to task

An Interview with Jay Rath

‘There’s just a tremendous moral laxity…Our nation’s police [have] not continued to move forward.’

Jay Rath on Thursday 02/09/2012

'Our nation's police [have] not continued to move forward.'
 The Rev. David Couper, a semi-retired Episcopal priest in Blue Mounds, served as chief of the Madison Police Department from 1972 to 1993. He made his mark in the city by transforming local policing and crafting reforms that spread nationally.

Couper’s upcoming book, Arrested Development, is part autobiography, part Madison history and part handbook for redefining the role of policing in the 21st century. It’s meant as a warning and a plan for action.

Couper, 73, arrived in Madison during the “War at Home” era. America was burning. National Guardsmen lined Madison streets, tear gas wafted across campus, State Street storeowners nailed plywood over shattered windows, and old-school cops in riot gear flatly refused to let protesters march. Like J. Edgar Hoover, Madison’s assistant chief held secret files on prominent citizens.

Contention within the Police and Fire Commission and the union led to Couper’s unlikely selection. He was a young chief of police in Burnsville, Minn., with some wild ideas.

When Couper was hired, recalls Mayor Paul Soglin, “I don’t know who in the community was more stunned, Mayor [Bill] Dyke or myself.

“It was just incredible,” adds Soglin, who was a young activist and city alderman at the time.

After many battles, Couper got rid of the secret files, promoted women through the ranks and integrated the department. He helped invent “community policing,” including what’s become known as “the Madison method” of crowd control.

Couper says he was motivated by a 1967 report issued by President Lyndon Johnson’s law enforcement task force.

“It was clarion call,” says Couper. “It said that the average police officer sees a city’s activities through the windshield of a police car, and hears about what the city’s doing through a police radio. Those are pretty myopic views of urban life.”

“The change that he brought to the department is so profound,” says Soglin, whose first term as mayor began soon after Couper’s arrival. Soglin says that Pat Murphy, the firebrand reformer and 1970s New York police commissioner, made a point of checking in with him on the police department’s progress. “It was recognized that Madison was becoming a model not just in terms of community policing but in how to transition to it.”

After serving in the military, Couper worked as a street cop in Minneapolis while studying at the University of Minnesota. He holds a master’s degree in social work.

The former Marine parachutist remains a tall and powerful figure, though his speech is soft and punctuated by frequent laughter. He recently answered questions about Arrested Development, which he will self-publish on April 1.

Why did you write this book?

The impetus was my being invited to a chiefs meeting in Washington in 2005, more than a decade after my retirement, and realizing our nation’s police had not continued to move forward. I used to be the pain in the ass to get them to move.

Why have they not continued to move forward?

The problem with policing is, stuff doesn’t catch on. They’re not really interested in the research; they’re not really interested in the problem-solving method. We’ve got this problem where excessive force continues to be brought to, for example, the Occupy movement. We still have problems with endemic corruption. There’s just a tremendous moral laxity.

Is some of this due to 9/11?

I think 9/11 has had a major effect. I’ve started to see some articles finally pop up on the militarization of our nation’s police, with Homeland Security. That’s where a lot of this — the body armor, the tear gas — all comes from. When “things” are more important than people — when we think we just need the right kind of weapons or right kind of instrumentality — then we don’t concentrate on the quality of the officer.

You write that you’re afraid it will be difficult for police to give up their post-9/11 powers.

I think it’s going to be really hard. I mean, it’s too sexy. My gosh! You get this really nice equipment and you get these machines. It can co-opt the best officers. It’s a very clear-cut role. By contrast, community policing is messy. First of all, it works best if you’re an officer within a community. The support you develop is based in the community.

How’s Madison doing?

I’m immensely proud of the Madison department. I think there’s a little tension over there about what I’m going to say. They’ve continued to carry on and hire good people. The interesting thing is that most of the stuff still sits in place. They dropped some of the things. For example, they don’t do the customer surveying.

Which you say in your book is critical.

I think it’s absolutely essential. I don’t know how you do the job without that.

What was Madison like when you came here?

It was almost like a state of war between students and police. There were hard feelings no matter who I talked to. The officers I talked to, most of them younger, said, “The stuff we’re doing just doesn’t work.” Frankly, they didn’t know what to do.

Mayor Dyke is not fondly remembered by veterans of the protests, but you write that the department tried to instill fear in him, for example by doing bomb checks on his car.

I’ve had contacts over the years with Bill Dyke. He’s a good man. But I think the police department railroaded him, tried to terrify him, maybe overexaggerate the situation, and he was operating out of fear.

Tell me about your first protest in Madison. You not only allowed students onto the streets, but you walked with them.

I showed up, and we were able to let the students have their speech and walk down University Avenue to Union South. It disbanded without any real problems. But when I got into work, [the assistant chief] said there was an undercover officer in that group reporting that people were allegedly going to harm me or something, which was a total misjudgment of the situation. I said, “I come from a city where cops get killed. I think I know when I’m in danger.”

You’re now an Episcopal priest. Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan has written that the early church’s priority was what he defines as “distributive justice.” Has that been a theme in both of your careers?

Very much so. It’s really not much different. If you’re a person interested in justice, it’s just another way of working for it.

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