Police Chief Survival 101

images-2Coming to Madison: Surviving Trials and Tribulation

One of first things I had to do along with instituting major changes within the department was to try to manage the uprising against me. The things I needed to immediately do took a considerable amount of my time when I first arrived. I needed to establish written policies and practices regarding how we would go about policing and share them with our community; especially policies regarding the use of deadly force and the pursuit of fleeing motor vehicles. I also had to hire high-quality applicants, both men and women, along with people of color. I needed to bring not only women into the department but remove the restrictions on the women who were already there.

So there was a lot of internal conflict during those early days, part of it the youth rebellion within our society and part due to the age difference between older and newly-hired officers. My willingness to relax the department’s grooming code created some allies for me and my policies. On the other hand, it irritated many of the older officers. Even so, on any one given day, if a vote had been taken, I would have had difficulty getting 50 percent of the internal vote. In the overall community, on the other hand, I was confident I would have fared much better.

As in most organizations, senior employees in the department controlled its union. Many of those officers sought to get rid of me by any and all means possible. During my first two years, I had to fight numerous charges they brought against me and my administration.

The conflict escalated from the filing of the petition with the police commission to formal charges being filed against me by seven officers who were looking for more than a review of my leadership. They were hoping to get me fired. It took two years to finally be acquitted of the major charges. Afterward, a newspaper story carried this quote from an officer who had signed the original petition against me:

  • So what if you don’t like him. The department has leaped forward the past 20 months more than it did in all the 10 years I’ve been here.[1]

An editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal, two days later under the headline, “Chief Couper Vindicated,” correctly observed,

  • They resented Couper’s style, his philosophy. They were men who thought the polish on an officer’s shoes or the length of his sideburns more important than his relationship with the community, the total community… Resentment against Couper was generated by a handful of veterans who saw Couper’s progressive law enforcement philosophy as a direct challenge to their viewpoints… Too many smears have been leveled, too many unsubstantiated charges have been circulated, too much vindictiveness has been voiced, to be completely happy over the dismissal of the major charges against the chief.[2]

Those 20 months were a frontal assault against not only my philosophies but also against me and my family. It is one thing to have to go through an ordeal like this and still another thing to see your children suffer. I had six and four of them were attending school during those years. They suffered, too.

Yes, these were hard times; yet predictable given the job I knew I had to do. Somehow, in my youth, I thought I could convince the department that what I was doing wasn’t only necessary but essential for their future. While I was able to do that in Burnsville, it didn’t initially happen in Madison.

Those years took a personal toll on me as I often spent a full working day in the office followed by a full evening of hearings, investigations, and courtroom battles… Eventually, I was able to get back to police department business.

I wish I could say that the internal conflict ended after this litigation was finished, but it didn’t. Even so, as my tenure went on and a number of these adversaries either left the department or retired. I was able to replace them with educated and more flexible officers. Slowly, it all began to change. We were progressing…

[The above is an excerpt from my book, Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police (2012)]


[Note: I ended up staying in Madison and leading the department for over 20 years. When I retired, I looked back and saw that having a strong vision, being persistent, and having a deep passion for what I knew was right pulled me through. Mid-career, after an acrimonious divorce, I found a friend, soul-mate, lover, and partner (also a cop) who really did pull me through all this.]


[1] Wisconsin State Journal newspaper, September 7, 1974.

[2] Ibid. Editorial, September 9, 1974.



  1. Certainly know where you are coming from.

    When you want the best for the people you are called and hired “TO SERVE & PROTECT” and instead you see more of what shouldn’t be happening than should on your force it will become a hard place to work in. Personally, you will quickly find out that it’s not at all easy showing up for a shift in a situation like this and act like nothing is happening when people’s lives hang in the balance and you can’t even call in for some help when you need it and forget eating your lunch in the police cruiser trust me nothing you do in a situation like this.

    If it gets worst and for some reason the powers to be decide you’ve got to go don’t get overly upset at me if I tell you he could fall back to his years of experience to come up with a viable plan of action. Don’t be totally surprised the day the plan is activated.

    You might even say something like this; “SURELY IF ANYONE ATTEMPTS TO KILL ME ON THIS FORCE THAT SOMEONE SOMEWHERE WILL DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT” but you will quickly find out (IF YOU SURVIVE) that investigators were more interested in cleaning up the mess than to prosecute the ones behind this assassination attempt. You know it’s more an image and liability thing these days than an honor thing.

    Glad you are on board; Sir I do feel better knowing someone’s out there offering direction and sharing valuable knowledge and values in the bid to help others is refreshing to see. Someone who cares what happens not only in our police forces but also outside of those walls as well. For me this is refreshing and I feel better knowing you have both eyes open and you are watching over all of us it brings a sense of hope & security to my soul. Something I have not felt in over 35 years.

    How can you not trust someone when you see such commitment that goes over and beyond the call of duty. THANK YOU!


    1. Thank you so much for your comments and reflection. The Blue Culture is an overwhelming experience and very difficult to navigate with your integrity fully intact. Somehow a “band of brothers and sisters” must form that are committed to doing the right and who can, literally, watch each other’s backs. There are some aspects of the police subculture that I loved, but at the same time realized there are some looming dark shadows, too. May your healing continue…


      1. Get rid of the bad apples or better still the barrel or the Occult practises and that would be a huge help in stopping the darkness that has come in and has settled into high places entering through the back doors of our nations.

        We need to get back to the basics and thanks, the healing has been and continues to be a work in progress like peeling back layers of an onion, it’s quite painful at times when you have been targeted by your own people.

        All this stuff happening out there and the injustices executed by those who still think they are above the law makes any kind of healing difficult.

        Giving police forces or investigators a blank check verses holding them accountable is not the way to success.

        In Canada we have moved from 1,181 unsolved murdered and missing aboriginal unsolved cases to about 4,000 now according to an M.P. who travelled across Canada.

        That MP said yesterday a story of a Halifax woman who was shot in the back of the head and police said it was suicide.

        Last week the Canadian Aids for the Wrongfully Convicted released an update on a 60 year old case that covers a Gaspe, Quebec man who was hung in Montreal 60 years ago for murdering three Americans on a hunting trip to our country. It sounded to me like they were followed from the USA and murdered here in Canada but no one took time to investigate that possibility.

        In all those cases investigators are never held responsible, like in my case for the lies, deceptions and the damages they do to the people they often but not target to cover up the real crimes.


  2. Police and the military share a bond of comradeship; however, if the people in those organizations don’t like you for some reason (real or imaginary), they can turn on you real fast despite the fact that you share the same hardships and dangers together.


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