Policing the USA: Race, Justice, Media


Chicago police lead a demonstrator from Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. The convention became the focal point of confrontations between police and anti-war demonstrators. (Photo: AP)
Chicago police lead a demonstrator from Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention in August 1968. The convention became a focal point of confrontations between police and anti-war demonstrators. (Photo: AP)

9:13 p.m. EST, Jan. 7, 2016
By David Couper

[Thanks to USA Today for doing a spotlight on American policing. I am honored to write one of the first essays.]

When I joined the police over 50 years ago, I was a newly discharged Marine in search of a night job so I could attend college, get my degree and go back into the Marines as an officer. With few exceptions, the Marines wanted college graduates as their leaders. I soon found myself in the midst of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. There was racism, violence on the streets and a great dislike of protesters. One might say that not much has changed.

I remember thinking, I needed to stay in law enforcement and carry out what I believed police should do in a free society: Guard and protect people and their rights.

I never went back into the Marines. When I received my bachelor’s degree, I was a newly promoted detective in Minneapolis in the wake of the Miranda decision in 1966. My senior colleagues were distraught about having to inform suspects of their rights, and some even gave up interviewing arrested individuals. I saw the change in procedure as an opportunity, and part of what policing in a democracy was all about.

And so I read suspects their rights and solved crimes by simply being respectful to those we arrested. Is policing rocket science? No, it’s simply common sense. In fact, Robert Peel and others had written about these principles of policing more than 100 years earlier while forming the London Metropolitan Police.

In 1967, the report of President Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was released. It gave me a strong vision for the future. I knew then I wanted to be a leader who would try to improve policing. I continued my education while still working in the department by pursing a graduate degree in sociology.

With a master’s degree and nine years of street experience, in 1969, I was chosen to lead a newly formed police department in Burnsville, a suburb of Minneapolis. Burnsville was where I had the opportunity to try out new ideas; among these were neighborhood-oriented policing, college degrees for new officers, and non-military-style uniforms. We hired college-educated cops and had strong community support for our reforms.

Police Chief David Couper in the 1990s. (Photo: Glen Trudell)
Police Chief David
Couper in the 1990s. (Photo: Glen Trudell)

Four years later, I was an outsider coming in to lead the police department in Madison, Wis. I had a big job: integrate the department, also bring women into policing and reduce the conflict with students on the nearby University of Wisconsin campus. The college campus was well known for protests. I was there over 20 years, and I learned changing police takes time, patience and persistence. Most of all, improving police, helping them be more controlled in their use of force and respectful to all whom they encounter takes strong leadership and the ability to “walk your talk” to the rank and file.

Looking back, both those departments today still stand as models of fair, effective and democratic policing.

The situation today is not unlike that in which I joined the police so many years ago. It is a time of both challenge and opportunity. The job of a police officer is no more dangerous than it was during my days. In fact, during my career, 1974 was the most deadly year for law enforcement officers in the past half century. America experienced two spikes in fatalities to police officers — both times of prohibition, one during the war on alcohol in the 1920s and 1930s, and the other during our ongoing war on drugs. There has been no “Ferguson effect.”

Most officers go through their entire careers without having to take a suspect’s life. Yes, the policing job is dangerous but not that dangerous. Most important today, good men and women need to step forward to help our nation’s police move into the 21st century. Technology will not save our police, but the right people can. My generation joined the police at the height of civil rights and war protests. I am confident this generation will do so as well.

The way our nation’s police will restore lost trust and support is through passionate and visionary leaders, a new breed of men and women who will be committed to being the guardians of our nation’s values, protectors of those among us who are most vulnerable — the poor, those suffering from mental illness, racial and ethnic minorities, and those homeless and disenfranchised, to name a few.

You don’t like what you see on YouTube? Today, I challenge the young men and women in our nation who are concerned, even shocked, by the behaviors of some police officers, to join them and improve them!




  1. I love the challenge, we certainly need that new breed of LEO, to help facilitate change needed to deliver the relationship paradigm shifts necessary immediately.

    Who is that new breed of officer, what do they look like, what are characteristics, personality traits needed? How much education will they need? Required?


    1. I have tried to attract and develop such a person throughout my LE career: educated (4 yrs of college), well-trained, respectful, honest, controlled in use of force and willing to work closely with those whom they serve in solving community problems.


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