Is Improving Police an Impossible Task?

Scan-3.BMP            In 1960,  when I first pinned on a badge, I was a “college cop”—on the beat at night and in class during the day. That experience changed my life. By the end of the decade, I was chosen to lead the police department in Madison, Wisc.—a cultural epicenter of that time. For over 20 years, I worked to make sure the department would help lead the change that I was sure was going to happen in America. I brought college-educated women and minorities into a police department consisting primarily of high-school-educated white males, dismantled an extensive police spying system, and repaired the acrimony between students, the minority community and my officers. Soon, over half of the department had college degrees, one-quarter of the department was female, and over 10 percent were officers of color. Along the way, we developed a method to respond to hundreds of public protests without resorting to violence.

            Today, most police seem to be ignoring the vast racial and cultural changes that occurred in our nation and what has been learned. Since September 11, 2001, we have been a nation gripped in fear. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin and surveillance of Muslim-Americans are two sad examples along with the growing militarization of our nation’s police before our very eyes.

The stop and frisk and racial profiling controversies ought to be in themselves enough to make my point. But there are other more discomforting police matters at hand—corruption, excessive use of force, manipulating crime statistics, mishandling those who choose to publicly dissent, and stonewalling the media. The list continues as our nation’s police chiefs fail to lead their officers and citizens out of this morass.

Our nation does not need police with a military mindset. That is not the way forward. I spent four years on active duty in the Marines, and I can tell you that I had to change my thinking when I joined the police—soldiers protect nations, police protect rights. There’s a big difference. In fact, close police-military relationships can quickly divert police from their mission of peacekeeping and rights protection. This is obvious when we account for the equipment our police possess today— masks that hide identity, fully-automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and armored personnel carriers.

The job of our police is to gain both our respect and support. And that is what assures safe streets. But as Robert Peel, who established the founding principles of democratic policing over 150 years ago, wryly noted, the level of public support of the police is inversely related to the amount of force they use.

The lesson to be learned is that physical force by police in a democracy must always be used cautiously and minimally—even on the bad guys. This has recently been highlighted by the way in which many of our nation’s police departments have responded to the Occupy protesters. How well (and restrained) police handle Constitutionally-protected protest is really the hallmark of police in any democratic society. On top of all this there is the seemingly never-ending problem of police corruption. Police have been reluctant or unable to police themselves and are overly resistant to transparency and openness with citizens and media who serve as our watchdogs. Whether the corrupt act in question is to get a bad guy off the street or to line their own pockets it is still corruption by police and must never be tolerated.

What needs to be done? Four major and historical obstacles exist today which prevent our police from getting better. Each one needs to be dismantled. The first is the attitude of anti-intellectualism; from the failure to require police applicants to have a broad, four-year liberal arts education to distaining research. The second is the haste to use force when trying to solve a problem. The third is on-going personal and systemic corruption. The fourth obstacle is blatant discourtesy towards not only toward persons arrested, but also those who are victims, witnesses, members of the media, and bystanders.

Police can be improved. Here’s how: overcome the four obstacles, select the best and brightest to serve, listen to what they and the community have to say, train and lead them collaboratively and respectfully, continuously improve all systems of work, honestly survey “citizen-customers,” evaluate progress, and work to sustain the effort. In less than a decade, the Madison department was transformed into an organization which became more diverse, competent, restrained, and community-oriented. It remains so today.

It’s about time we in America started thinking about what’s happening to our nation’s police and do something about it. If you’re white, middle class and don’t drive a car, the likelihood of meeting police face-to-face is slim. But when you do, or your children are confronted, don’t you expect police to be law-abiding, well-trained, restrained, respectful? If we don’t do something soon, there is more at stake than losing our dignity.


  1. Chief,
    You wrote “In fact, close police-military relationships can quickly divert police from their mission of peacekeeping and rights protection. This is obvious when we account for the equipment our police possess today—body armor, masks that hide identity, fully-automatic weapons, grenade launchers, and armored personnel carriers.”
    Body armor? Wearing a bullet-resistant vest to protect myself from gunfire is somehow correlated with violating the rights of community members? I’m not sure I see the connection…


    1. Thanks, Ashley, for your feedback. I was not specific enough when I mentioned “body armor.” I am a strong proponent of body armor for police — what I was trying to say was the anonymity of SOFT body armor in initial crowd/protest contacts (my book is more specific about this). Thanks for bringing this to my attention and it will be corrected. As the old sergeant on the 1980s TV series “Hill Street Blues” used to say, “Now, be careful out there!”


  2. We must be willing to forgo the crime-fighting and crime-detecting mandate of the police and keep only the peacekeeping,order-maintenance and justice-dispensing roles if we want them to improve; it is the former role which makes the police systemically brutal,corrupt and deceitful.


    1. Our job is to fight crime, which makes it peaceful for others to go about their day to day activities. We still interact with the public and for the 900,000 plus officers who do this everyday wedo the best we can. name me any profession that does not ave a few bad apples? Last time I checked us cops never “hacked”into a computer system but there have been several people who never carried a badge who have. we have dentist here in oklahoma who has been accused (Not at trial yet) of infecting over 7,000 patients. And yes it’s the police who has to investigate it alside the medical board. So, we can now agree that there are dumb asses in every profession…Every occupation. Not just cops.


  3. Sorry, but as a police officer trying to catch dangerous fugitives I find this rather…Scary. The body armor we wear is for well, folks who want to kill us. We do not have Fully automatic weapons (Cost to much) And we don’t have a armored personnell carrier (Cost too much) But I do have a patrol car that’s shot to shit trying to rescue a elderly lady who’s son was shooting up the neighborhood. We wear nomex mask because some of the fine “Citizens’ who have decided to make their meth products near the school have already blew up on me once and they along with protective mask we use in some cases to deploy flash bangs and other chemical irritants beats the old days as you put it of kicking in the doors and blasting away. As far as the “Military tactics” goes well call me one of those guys. We are to busy trying to stop a drug cartel that has destroyed a once beautiful town and destroying lives and they are using the same type of tactics you are so against us using. I and the others who are out there everyday are not sorry for what we are doing in this “War” (And yea damn it it’s a war) Whether you like it or not we are here and we put ourselves on the line everyday just so our piece of the world if only for a little while can have peace. At least we are there doing something to try to make it work. And if at the end of the day a “Citizen” who has had such disdain for us can still sit in his/her basement or porch and tell us how fucked up we are after we put a sex offender, murder suspect or someone who has just beat the shit out of his old lady away. Then that citizen survey is worth it. And as my father would tell people as me about people like that I tell you “May your hatred for us be a long one”> In the comfort of your homes.


    1. The purpose of this blog and my book was to try and get police to see the “big picture.” It was a big journey for me when I first started wearing a badge. But it was well worth it looking back on a lengthy career. Hang in there!


  4. Kenneth Wise,

    And you obviously show disdain for the very people you serve. You are a Civilian, just like the rest of us, but one that has taken a job that does involve danger and grants special powers therefore; but also involves following and upholding the law, respecting your fellow citizens, and never forgetting that you are one of those Civilians.

    If it’s a War that you do within the borders of our country, who are you at war with? If there are 10 million criminals in this country, you’re War is still being waged against 300,000,000 citizens that aren’t criminals, and you wage it against them because you lose the ability to distinguish when you use and embrace military tactics. You use it on innocents too; you can’t recognize the difference because you start with the mindset that you are at War.

    A civilian police force is just that, and should never in anyway look at itself as anything other. The disdain you see may be because of, or increased by, the very tactics you use.

    “Whether you like it or not we are here and we put ourselves on the line everyday just so our piece of the world if only for a little while can have peace.” But it can’t while you wage War. It can when you Police.

    I served in the USCG for four years, the one military that represented to “serve and protect” given it’s three missions. Yet I wouldn’t want the methods used by the USCG as the standard for police.


    1. Then as in a free society you and I will disagree and we will leave it at that. And try to remember that statement to the family of the murdered cop in boston..


  5. Guys like Kenneth Wise have disdain for the US Constituition and the Bill of Rights whether they are on the streets or in their own homes. They seem to forget that civil rights and labor union activists put their lives on the line to make this country better for everyone including police officers like Mr. Wise.

    With the veterans coming home from Iraq and Afganistan, I hate to see many of them join the police and still unable to distinguish who are the good guys and who are the bad guys when they couldn’t do it in a combat situation.

    “The body armor we wear is for well, folks who want to kill us. We do not have Fully automatic weapons (Cost to much) And we don’t have a armored personnell carrier (Cost too much).”

    The Pentagon give virtually giving away much of its equipment to the police department due to the war on terrot, so Mr. Wise you have no excuse to acquire them.

    Mr. Wise, if you can’t or won’t even meet the basic qualitifcations of your job, then turn in your badge and give it to someone who wants to make a difference. You are wasting your time and the taxpayers time.


    1. You sir are sadly misinformed, we do not get any government anything from anyone.And contrary to what you’ve heard in your basement most of the men and women who do return and become cops have more insight into dealing with civilians than you do And that constitution you talk about also gives me the same rights as you do. Do not get it twisted that just because you feel you can say something that someone else has to agree with you or they show disdain for you. My grandmother always said “If you gonna be ass then be a fair ass” If you do not want opposing opinions on this site let me and others know and we will go somewhere else. Not hard or complicated.
      Ok Gunther?


  6. Mr. Wise, tried to remember the families whose love ones got murder by the police, during the labor strikes of the 19th and 20th centuary when all they wanted was a better life. Also tried to remember the families whose loved innocent ones who are rotting in prison due to police withholding evidence and/or manufacturing evidence or due to incompetent and/or sloppy police work while the guilty ones are roaming free thanks to your fellow officers. You wonder how many of those guitiy ones will end up killing a cop because of incompetent and/or corrupt police work.


  7. Mr. Wise, you need to remember the families of those two ladies who were nearly killed by paranoid cops who were looking for that ex-LAPD officer and then you wonder why you are fired from your job plus the taxpayers have to pay money because you cops have no discipine to control your fea and follow proper police procedure and policy. Don’t play the families of murdered cops game. That is a COP OUT excuse that should have been buried a long time ago.


    1. I’m not copping out to anything but I do hate sites that claimed that they want a talk about police matters but when it’s not  in support of your agenda then I have to hear the BS. And like I stated earlier, You don’t like us…Fine. That’s your right but I am not going to agree with anyone whose only bitch and gripe is something that they heard from or saw on T.V. So, like I said before, if the only thing this site is  going to do is a one sided conversation about one group in general then count me out of this one.   Let me know when you are seeking true solutions to the problem.



      1. Perhaps I need to identify where I am coming from. I was a cop and leader for 33 years. I don’t think I am one-sided unless one-sided means that I am committed to help police improve. And improvement means we must know what our problems are. I am happy to moderate this discussion between you and Gunther, but I expect the comments to be civil. I am at somewhat a loss to understand your anger. State who you are. The kind of cop you seek to be and let us all understand that every barrel has its bad apples. So, let’s look at the big picture. Can/should police be improved and to what measure? Thanks for engaging…


  8. No, Mr. Wise, you are sadly misformed and twisted. There are lots of police and sheriff departments in my state that have been getting a lot of equipment from government like armored vehicles for the SWAT teams even though they are in rural areas that don’t have a strong tax base to purchase items. Police officers do not have more insight into civilians; otherwise, you guys and gals would not being getting donkeys rear ends sue in court for violating people’s rights to protest peacefully, refusing the police to search their vehicles and property by execising their right not to be search, and/or labeling people and organizations as a threat to the USA when they were actually no threat at all. If you had better insights of civilians, you would not have so many innocent people send to prison and your rate of solving crime would not be so low in this country which means alot of criminals are still roaming free committing more crime which means that there is a good chance of cops getting killed or injured due to their fellow officers being incompetence, lazy, and/or corrupt. If you had better insights into civilians; how come, I don’t see a lot of white collar CEOs on Wall Street being investigate and arrested by the police causing economic destruction in this country for the last 33 years? It is because the police don’t have the moral backbone to stand up to rich people and corporations and never will.

    In addition, too many cops thinks that the civilians should not be exercising their rights and the police do get tick off and show disdain for people who do exercise their rights.

    Moveover, many cops are unfair donkey rears ends because they do not want to hear other people’s opinions unless they are LEOs. If you go to websites like, many cops don’t want hear other people’s opinions and the owners of those websites have the software to prevent other people from airing their veiwpoints or design those websites for cops only which means that the public is effectivelty shut out.from any participation. Even many cops don’t want to hear from other cops who have different opinions. Finally, I did not tell you directly or indirectly to go somewhere else. You are free to air your opinons on this website just like I can air my viewpoint compare to police websites that don’t allow difference of opinions not from the public nor even some of their fellow cops who are willing to break the wall of silence..

    Okay, Mr. Wise?


  9. I would be happy to have a civil conversation with Mr. Wise with Rev. Couper as a moderator; however, Mr. Wise needs to get an education regarding the history of policing in America. Like too many Americans of today, many cops don’t have a understanding of past American history and how the police help create the political, social, and economic conditions in this country.

    Thank you.


  10. Kenneth Wise is being investigated by the FBI for sending death threats to a man and rape threats to the man’s 12 year old little girl. That’s what you have working in law enforcement commenting in this forum. I know this for a fact, as I have spoken with the FBI agent handling the case about Kenneth Wise, personally.


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