Change, Unrest Offer Opportunity for New Cops

UnknownWhy it’s worth it: Change, unrest offer opportunity for new cops

“Why it’s worth it” is a series of essays by police officers, and retired cops, sharing what motivated them to join law enforcement and why they stayed on the job. 

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.

Four years later, I was an outsider coming in to lead the police department in Madison, Wis. I had a big job: racially 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.

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 really appreciate your historical perspective David. I do however, need to challenge the “No Ferguson Effect” statement. Cops are most definitely not engaging in pro-active policing in light of recent events, I have a student researching this now. The question is “So What?” Is the dramatic decline in pro-active policing a good thing, as some academics argue (Hunting for Dirt bags) or a bad thing (associated increases in crime and disorder). I used to preach to my cops to get out on the streets and seek out the criminal perpetrator, be pro-active rather than waiting for someone to be victimized. Today some would argue that we should just sit around and wait for crime victims to call, Pro-active policing is un-democratic as it is ineffective (only 15% of stops result in arrests) and it disproportionately impacts African Americans. Those who argue this completely discount any deterrent effect and would seem to prefer us sitting around the PD like firemen waiting to be called out.

    On Trust:
    I can offer the argument that trusting the police, as agents of local government, has never been part of our make-up as Americans. Suspicion and democratic control of the government is a founding principle of our Nation. It is not healthy, in my opinion, for people to trust their police rather, progressive minds should seek ways to better hold them accountable for democratic principles. Part of that accountability for the police means not engaging in behaviors that undermine their legitimacy, as confidence in the legitimacy of the police, and the criminal justice system generally, is the bedrock foundation of the rule of law.

    In my experience, cops are simple minded, it’s just an aspect of our bureaucratic system. When we simply say “Build trust in the Community” the message is to make friends and not make arrests. A better system of officer accountability will help define exactly what we mean by trust and legitimacy for those cops who like things black and white. We need “wise” cops tempered by good will governed by a transparent, community based incentive program of professional development. Just my opinion.


  2. Great article, Chief. And thank you for issuing challenges not just to police, but to their critics.

    I graduated with a BA in criminal justice and entered the security field (healthcare sector mostly) soon after. My initial plan was to gain experience in the unique and relatively high-threat atmosphere of modern healthcare and then look at opportunities in public law enforcement soon after. Like many police applicants, I come from a police family. But that is only part of the story.

    As I researched the trends in law enforcement as a twenty-something, I began to have reservations. I was concerned about police militarization and overly aggressive responses to public protest way before CNN figured out there was a problem. I had turned sharply against the drug war way before a bi-partisan consensus emerged that incarceration was being overused. And I questioned whether overemphasis on traffic enforcement was more about revenue than public safety way before the DOJ released its report on the activities on the Ferguson PD and other agencies in St Louis County.

    So I had basically given up on public sector options when something strange, perhaps counterintuitive to most people, began to happen during the unrest in Ferguson. I experienced inner turmoil that was not just caused by my frustration with the criminal justice system. I actually began to consider applying to police departments again. Why would I subject myself to that? I have struggled with that question and still do.

    I am in my late thirties now, older than most recruits. I don’t know if I will re-enter the testing process for police agencies, which can be long and cumbersome. I am also looking at opportunities in security management now.But I am giving policing a second look. We may be at the beginning of a paradigm shift. Maybe at this time, people with new, even critical, ideas about policing will be accepted instead of shunned. A person like myself that has spent years interacting with substance abusers, the mentally ill, career criminals and just plain aggressive people could be a good asset to an agency. A person with more life and work experience may be of value even if they are a step slower on the (Arbitrary) 1 1/2 mile run used in the physical agility test. A person who is not afraid of violence, but understands from experience that it should be avoided, may fit in well in a truly community-oriented police department. Maybe.

    I’ve gone on long enough. I would appreciate any advice, Chief. Even if we have the occasional disagreement on tactics or policy,I appreciate that you are trying to hold the police to a higher standard. Police, like the US in general, can do better!


    1. Dave, you sound like the kind of guy I would have hired! I encourage you to “enter the fray” (breach?) and press forward. More mature candidates like you can make a big difference in the future of policing. That’s how I felt when I joined the police a half century ago with the objective to change them. I did and some of it stuck! What didn’t stick is mostly the subject of my posts and preaching!


      1. Thanks for the encouragement and kind words, Chief. I’ll stay open-minded and check your blog frequently for inspiration.


  3. I wish the police would be pro-active when it comes to white collar, corporate crime. That explosion at a Texas chemical plant a few years ago, would not had happened if the health, safety, and environmental inspectors had been allowed to arrest the owners of the place instead of getting them citations. The end result was that when the plant caught fire and exploded, it kill a police officer who had responded to the scene. The CEO should have been charged with murder or manslaughter.

    The SEC was about to take Goldman Sach to trial in 2009 for securities but the top leaders did not want to take action plus they face retaliation from Congress and the security industries they were supposed to regulate. Another SEC employee had warned her superiors about Bernard L. Madoff’s financial management firm but was ignored in 2004. The end result is that Senator Elizabeth Warren attack the SEC boss of being weak. The problem with white collar, corporate crime is that the Wall Street cops, the state and federal DAs and the various federal and state agencies are forced to sit on the sidelines when the crime is happening and then have to clean up the mess without any kind of long term success let alone bring anyone to court.


  4. Once again very interesting article. If I may, you wrote “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.

    Four years later, I was an outsider coming in to lead the police department in Madison, Wis.”

    I’m interested to what affect your new ideas had in the Burnsville community in those four years as the Police Chief? When selected Chief of Madison, did you implement any of your ideas that were tested in Burnsville? If so, what where they and how did they work out. i.e “non-military-style uniforms and college-educated cops” (I like to use the word “Police Officer or Peace Officer) If you didn’t, why not?

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.


    1. Alan, the main idea that stuck in Burnsville is the 4-yr college degree — Burnsville remains one of the 1% of police departments in the U.S. that require a 4 yr degree. For what I brought from Burnsville to Madison was education, blazers, neighborhood policing, etc. For the full story you are invited to read my book, “Arrested Development”


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