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.