Wrestling with Pigs: About “Getting Even”

“I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” – George Bernard Shaw

[The following excerpt is from my book, Arrested Development, and captures a most difficult time in my career as a leader.]


During my first two years [as chief of police in Madison, Wisc.], 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…

The Wisconsin State Journal… 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” (Sept. 9, 1974).

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…

Still, during those years of acrimony, I was relishing the day the hearings would be over and the charges against me resolved. I held a deep grudge against the officers who had taken action against me, and was convinced that many of them had given false testimony. I was going to fire them or put them in jail. That old police saying kept ringing in my ears— don’t get mad, just get even.

My top staff were behind me on this, and we often talked about the sweetness of revenge. The night I was exonerated, I knew my next step was to go after them. However, my legal team had other thoughts for me to consider. That evening, they asked to speak with me alone. They reminded me that they were longtime residents of Madison and that what they had to say came from them as members of the community, not just as my lawyers. They advised me not to take action against those who had filed charges against me. They went on to say that from their perspective, the city was sick and tired of all the conflict and acrimony within the department. Moving against a number of police officers would prolong the internal conflict for months, if not years. It was time, they said, for me to get on with moving the department forward.

When I heard their advice I was numb. I thought this was now fight time. I had never considered not retaliating. I wanted to go on the offensive, now it was my turn. But I sincerely respected these two men and I took their advice.

Looking back, it was wise counsel, superlative advice…

When I didn’t take action against those officers, many on my staff intensely disagreed with me. They, too, had been affected; they, too, wanted to get even. I had to take the high road and not let my feelings affect the job I now had to do. I had to shift from being a victim to being a leader.


  • This was one of the most difficult decisions I had to make during my career as a police chief. After all, I was a fighter, college and military wrestler, expert martial artist and now I had to decline to wrestle with an opponent.
  • It would have been a savory engagement to retaliate, to “get even,” but that’s not the realm of true leadership. It’s difficult to step back when you believe your opponent needs to be taught a lesson – after all, this wasn’t something I just learned. I knew it was the right thing to do because I had learned and practiced it earlier as an effective street cop – I had the power, and must use it wisely — every challenge doesn’t need a physical response.

[These challenges unfortunately happen more than once in a lifetime. I can name other events during my police career (and in teaching college students who wished to become police officers as well!) but more on that later!]

7 Comments

  1. A highly thought of police officer in a town near mine was murdered in the course of duty last week. As you can imagine, the community is grieving and angry: the suspect has been nicknamed “125” for the number of cases against him.

    As a result of this sad incident, a lot of us have been thinking about the “blue line” and how your relationships as a working group differ from the average person’s.

    Your story is cautionary in that it tells us that the “blue line” ethic of brotherhood, loyalty and solidarity is sometimes a lie. It’s especially disturbing because one of the things police officers should but rarely do is to expose, condemn and isolate bad cops. Doing nothing, which is what you chose, undermined the good cops who stood by you. Sorry, but if I were one of your loyal reports, I’d have felt betrayed.

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    1. These are not easy decisions — to get revenge, to retaliate is more likely than not to be in our genetic makeup. But the future I see, and one that I aspire, is to forgive and, if possible, work toward reconciliation. I am unsure what you mean about feeling betrayed in this situation. But you are right that the good cops need to out the bad cops — or as I recommend, to engage in active peer intervention practices. Nothing impacts the police culture (and community at large) more than when an officer is killed in the line of duty. There is a time to grieve. But to retaliate in kind is often not in our best interests. Hence, my continued opposition to the death penalty. Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated.

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  2. Another great article..An outsider coming into change police culture can be more challenging than one could possibly imagine. Thanks for sharing that story David.

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  3. Amen. You got your justice by being acquitted, even though the charges may have been bogus and the time and cost on your life was tremendous. Not retaliating showed that you had better things to do than engage in tit for tat battles that just submerge the whole organization. Embracing anger for long periods is fatal as well to one’s health. I think your loyal reports may have felt betrayed in the short term that you did not go after these guys, but no doubt recognized later, along with the town, that moving on took leadership and courage.

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  4. David, Not only did you take their advice, you took it to heart, the workplace and the streets and you moved forward. You continue to share your experiences of following and leading in your writings and in your encounters with people. I think up until that pivotal moment, which I had heard you speak about before you wrote about, or published it, I think you were feeling like an officer and when you were spoken to by leaders, you became a leader. Pivotal moment indeed and I believe it helped you prepare for seminary and your career as a clergy person as well.

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