Dear Chief: An Old Veteran Talks to Young Leaders


Dear Chief, I am writing this letter because I care for you and what you do. I know you have a tough job to do today, but I have to wonder, do you really know what’s going on?

As I remember, it was so easy to get tunnel vision and not see the big picture. Do you realize that your department and every police department in America, regardless of what it has or hasn’t done, is at a dangerous crossroad – and depending on the road you take will determine the course of events and the nature of your relationships with those whom you serve for at least the next decade?

This is not a time for reticence nor timidity. It is a time to carefully choose and boldly lead forward.

You must consider that what your staff, mayor, members of the city council and others may be telling you is wrong. Instead, I urge you to deeply listen to the communities (and I say this in the plural) in your city  —  all those varied voices.

If you are in an urban area there is a good chance that 40-50% of your contacts and arrests involve  people of color, while the overall racial demographic of your city may be significantly white, it is people of color that are the recipients of most of your actions and to whom you need to listen.

As a police leader in a free society, I would suggest that what people of  color have to say about the way you police counts much more than those who call themselves white. When you ask, “How are we doing?” it cannot be at the country club, it has to be asked on the street. That is where you will learn what needs to be  done.

How do the people you have primary contact with evaluate your services? Do you know? You had better, because when a questionable event happens; a bad or misunderstood decision by one of your police officers, what your primary “customer” base has to say will matter greatly  in the outcome.

As a three-decade police officer and police chief for over half of that time, I learned some things. And since I have retired and followed policing for another two decades, I have some perspective on that which I first  learned.

I will not attempt to speak for your community, but let me suggest that  what they may be saying and even demanding addresses three vitally critical police service areas. What you do in response to  these  service areas will determine the future course of your department and the officers you lead. The  three  areas to immediately work  on are  these: use of  force, respectfullness, and proximity

  • Force. You can no longer rely on using the USSC decision in Graham v. Connor as your standard of using deadly force. The decision basically says, “If I fear — I can shoot. ” Simply stated, you must cease killing unarmed persons in standoff and resistance situations and defend this because  your officer felt threatened. The community will not tell you HOW to do this, only that you MUST have a stronger commitment to saving lives..
  • Respectfulness. The more formal term for this is “procedural justice” or, more understandable to the community— “unconditional respect;” that is, all people, and I do mean all, must be treated with respect by every police officer in your department regardless of circumstance or provocation. This is what professionals do; they don’t let their feelings or biases effect how they perform their work. If it’s what you as their chief believes and enforces, it will happen.
  • Proximity. This is the strength of community-oriented policing. Closeness. It’s police and citizens working intimately together in proximity solving neighborhood problems. This means your police officers are to be assigned to neighborhoods for a considerable period of time – enough time so that police and community members come to know and build trust and confidence in one another.

If you immediately take action, strongly choose this path;  step forward and implement, train and coach these three areas of policing, I will guarantee you and your officers will reap enormous benefits in the near future with regard to building trust, being effective, and having the support of  your entire  community.

I have always been persistent and passionate in what I believe. I am not giving up on you. I know deep-down you want to do the right thing.

Sincerely yours,

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

p.s My first open letter to police leaders was posted last summer. You can find it HERE.

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