Can Madison Police Go From Good to Great?

imagesLast night, the Madison Board of Police and Fire Commissioners began their process of selecting a new chief of police for the City of Madison, Wisc. The process appropriately began with a listening session — an open meeting to hear from the community about what they should be looking for in a chief of police. The following is what I told them as I was joined with about eight others who gave formal testimony to a crowd of about thirty people.

On Wednesday evening at First Congregational Church, the community will begin to ponder two specific issues: the shooting of three unarmed men during the past nine months and whether or not police should investgate themselves in these instances. I plan on giving no formal presentation but I will be there.

At this point in my life, my passion for a great police has not diminished one bit. I had this hope, this dream, this vision for police when I first put on a badge over fifty years ago. I still have it.

Click here to see a video of last night’s hearing:

On Hiring a Chief of Police:
An Open Letter to the Madison Board of Police and Fire Commissioners

October 14, 2013

David C. Couper
Chief of Police (Ret)
Madison, Wisconsin

Let me begin by reminding you that you have before you one of the most important of public decisions. What you are about to do is critical. It involves the future of the Madison Police Department and will impact citizens and visitors to Madison for years to come .

As many of you may know, I was chief of police here for over 20 years. When I came from Minnesota to Wisconsin, I knew that my new home was a progressive state. I had heard about the Wisconsin Idea; that our state had good government, clean politics, and valued education, creativity, and innovation.

The state statute under which you operate is an example of that progressivism. It removes the heads of police and fire departments from the negative effect of partisan politics and short-term tenures. You serve in such a tradition and play an important role in maintaining good government. The chiefs you choose are not subject to political whims and can only be removed for just cause by you. This gives your police and fire chiefs the opportunity to do the right thing and have the time to carry out the forward progress that is always needed to assure continuing organizational excellence. And I say movement because not to move an organization forward in America today, whether it is an industry, business, or governmental service is to fall behind.

I have always believed, that police should be smart, well-educated and trained, restrained in their use of force, honest, close to the community, courteous to everyone, and committed to improving themselves throughout their career. I believe their leaders should be likewise, but also collaborative coaches, trainers, and mentors. Coercive, fear-inspired leadership (if you can call it that) has no place today in a modern organization; in fact, it is bullying in the workplace.

Choosing a chief of police is an awesome task for anyone. I urge you to ask tough questions and deeply listen to those both inside and outside the police department. Some questions you may wish to ask candidates:

— What is the difference between a good police department and one which is great? In your opinion, where is Madison today on the scale of good to great? Describe how you think a great police department operates — internally and with its many communities.

— What style of leadership is necessary in a great organization? Describe it. How does it work internally? How does it work in the community? If you don’t have it, how do you get it?

— What qualities do you bring to the table that will give us the confidence that you are the person we should select to lead our police?

— Tell us how, in your past experience, you have lead a vision for policing into becoming a standard practice?

— Tell us what you think the 3-5 things that need improving within the department right now? How would you go about leading them?

The question for you as Commission members is where such a person can be found – inside or outside the department — and what are the pros and cons of each?

What must be prevented today is creeping organizational stagnation. It happens when a great police department sits back and rests. I believe it happened after I retired. And no one inside the department, who deeply knew the department and the community, was able to lead until a decade later when Noble Wray became chief. Only then was he able to start the organization on a forward path again by developing a vision of trust-based policing. But note, ten years had passed by.

You should also address what happened after the tragic event on 9/11. That one event cast a pallor of fear over our nation (and our police) which led to an increasing militarization of our nation’s police. It is a militarization that if not put in check will continue to overshadow the importance of having a civilian-based police in our democracy.

In a democracy, police and military functions need to be strongly separated. Soldiers fight enemies. Police serve communities.

A question you must answer today is that given the number of officer-involved fatal shootings (3) during the past year, what is the current level of trust in the community? Has it been diminished? By how much? And if it has been diminished, how might the trust which was lost be restored?

In my writings, I have identified four historical obstacles that have tended to impede police improvement: anti-intellectualism, the overuse of violence, personal and/or organizational corruption, and discourtesy. It is important to remember these four obstacles because they are traps that capture and hold police.

As a way out of this dilemma, consider the following:

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF should have a bold and challenging vision of excellence. As a young chief of police candidate I cast a vision to decentralization police services, attract and hire officers who were educated and had a sensitivity to, and understanding of, human behavior, develop the department’s capacity to manage conflict, and bring women and minorities into the department. All of this happened during my tenure.

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF must be able to select the best and brightest to serve as police officers. These officers must first be well-educated and then well-trained. They must be critical thinkers and able to grasp and act on the department’s vision.

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF must be able to deeply listen to others; including the diverse and sometimes critical voices of a multi-cultural community. The chief must also be able to ponder what has been heard and then act on it. This is what great leaders do.

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF must oversee a quality training program and model the style of leadership that is necessary to lead the organization forward. Formal leaders within the department, including the chief, must be coaches in a workplace that helps everyone to grow and to realize their full potential. Top-down coercive leadership can no longer be tolerated in any one of our nation’s workplaces – including the police.

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF must create a system of improvement, that constantly and continuously improves all that the department does — forever. This involves the use of problem-solving at the field level, empowering rank and file police officers, and a process of continuous self-evaluation. Leaders must be visible, present, and always asking, “What is it I can do to help you do a better job?” And then act on it.

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF must be data-driven, not the old crime statistics, but by real and meaningful data collection. Therefore, the chief and the department are able to explain and understand the results of that which they say they have improved. The primary questions are “How do we know this? And “What are the data to support what we say?”

A MADISON POLICE CHIEF must be able to sustain improvements that have been made. Change takes time and it is a mixture of inspiration and perspiration. A chief needs time and community support to truly improve things. To alter the course of a large and complex organization like a police department takes time – and effort. This requires a minimum of a ten year commitment, not an individual who is looking for something to do after retirement.

The Madison Police Department is a strong, educated organization with quality people throughout the ranks. You, of course, need to listen and listen deeply to them, but you must also listen in the same way to the community. This may require some independent opinion surveys be taken.

To appoint a chief of police at this time in history who is not passionately committed to improving things and, instead, is committed to keeping things just the way they are will be to take this department backward; to let it remain a good police department when it could again be a great one.

It is important to stay true to the Great Vision of the Madison Police Department. A vision that was boldly cast to, and embraced by, members of the department and community many years ago:

“[We are] a community oriented, decentralized, highly interactive, diverse police department staffed by those who share our organizational values.

“[We are], are well trained, committed, sensitive, courteous and able to make critical customer service decisions consistent with our mission at the ‘frontline’ of the organization.

“[We are] an organization that is noted for its high-level community confidence, intense level of support, respect and trust it shows its members and for high degrees of teamwork, openness and continuous improvement…

“[We are to be] the best city police department in America.”

Are you, as members of the Police and Fire Commission, going to be able to sustain this vision of excellence in policing and move it even farther forward?

Good luck and Godspeed.


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments last night, Chief Couper. I hope the PFC and those in the room who were upper management really listen to what you had to say. Looking forward to seeing you at this:


    Wed, Oct. 16th, 7-9pm
    The First Congressional Church
    1609 University Ave.

    *State Rep. Chris Taylor
    *UW Law Professor, Michael Scott
    *Former MPD Captain of Training, Cheri Maples
    *Open community discussion to submit your input to the Police and Fire Commission.

    NOW is a crucial time for community input, as the Police & Fire Commission will soon be selecting a new Chief for the Madison Police Department. This is the time for the community to have a voice on key issues affecting us right now, including:

    1) The current police standard for the use of deadly force. Since November 2012, with the unnecessary shooting of an unarmed man on the east side, there have been 3 police shootings resulting in the death of citizens – deaths that many people believe were preventable.

    2) The current practice of law enforcement investigating themselves in use-of-force incidents. It is not fair to either law enforcement or to the community they serve to expect the department to be able to investigate their friends and colleagues in an objective, unbiased manner. This is especially true when the use of force results in death.

    You can make a difference! If there is to be change, it requires YOU to take action. Please join your community in helping transform current problematic police practices in these areas – let your voice be heard, and listen to others, as the Police & Fire Commission begins its process of hiring a new Chief.

    Please help spread the word and pass this along! Forward this to your friends!

    “‘Someone ought to do it, but why should I?’ — ‘Someone ought to do it, so why not I?’ Between these two sentences lie whole centuries of moral evolution.”

    ~ Annie Besant


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