More on Seeking a Chief of Police

Some of Madison’s Chiefs of Police

The Madison Capital Times news CJ service asked me to write an op-ed about what the city should be consider as they begin the process of selecting a new chief of police.

This is what I wrote:

A Note to Madison from a Former Chief of Police

With Attorney Stuart Becker in 1973

My, how the years fly by. It’s been 25 years since I led your city’s police department for two tumultuous decades (1972-93). Since my retirement, I have gone into the ministry, but never did I cease watching, noting, writing, and commenting on policing and its importance in our democracy.

Since my tenure, Richard Williams, Noble Wray and Michael Koval have served as your chiefs of police. The latter two, I had the privilege of hiring and promoting.

Now you are again about to engage in a most important and vital process — selecting a chief of police. It will be a lengthy, and most likely contentious, process before the task is completed.

I have seen you struggle (as you did in my day) with diversity and inclusion, the perplexing problem of black high school graduation rates, growing violence and distrust of public agencies. Many of you are still questioning the four recent deaths of citizens by your police.

Post-Ferguson, most of white America has regained its trust of police. Not so among citizens of color. There is much work that needs to be done here. You would do well to revisit two recent community reports: the OIR Report on the Madison Police Department and the Madison and Dane County report, “Race to Equity.”

Here is an excerpt from chapter three of my book on rating police organizations. It has to do with the leadership characteristics of a top police leader.

What kind of person is the chief?

The police chief should be a visible and accessible leader who thoughtfully strives to improve the effectiveness of police services. The leadership ability of the chief is the single most important ingredient in a good police agency. Police agencies, like all large bureaucracies, tend to resist change. Improvements can be made only if the person at the top is willing to challenge the status quo, take risks, be innovative, and build a coalition of support for change. Improvements are not automatic with a committed police chief, but they are impossible without one…

What tone does the chief set for the agency?

The chief sets the tone for the agency through both actions and words. An aggressive tone could translate into physically and abusive officers, insensitive to citizen’s rights to due process. Or the chief can emphasize restraint, requiring all officers to exercise civility at all times and to meticulously observe the legal rights of all citizens they encounter…

Permit me to summarize the above: Leadership is always about character and integrity and deep, personal values about people — all the people a police agency serves. Police in a free society such as ours have the duty to protect those who are most vulnerable in the society. They are to both model and defend our Bill of Rights.

It is simply not enough to be the “top cop” in the police organization and support your officers; that’s relatively easy, just as maintaining an organization is a lot easier than transforming one. Far more difficult is the second part of a police chief’s job and part of an intricate balance — representing the community, being the people’s police chief; that is, representing all those who live in a diverse community such as Madison.

Along with this, a police chief must have the intestinal fortitude and temperament to make a difficult decision on behalf of a citizen in opposition to the men and women in the ranks of the organization because it was the right thing to do.

Police chiefs in Wisconsin, however, should be able to make a tough decision such as that because our Legislature was wise many years ago to provide them with tenure. At the same time, chiefs must be able to have the character to withstand the “slings and arrows” of opposition when they have to make a decision not approved by the rank and file.

It was this legislation provided in Wisconsin Statute 62.13 that saved my career more than once and enabled me to make tough decisions and serve as long as I did. Not everyone in the ranks supported our hiring minorities and women and ending our violent responses to public protest. I believe every mayor I worked for wanted to fire me at least once, and it took eight years to win over a police union that was opposed to me from day one.

Now an enormous task is before you: to provide a leader for your police department who thoroughly understands and is to show he or she can lead community-oriented policing department-wide, sees the community as an ally, is well-educated, trained, experienced, respectful to everyone and understands the use of physical force by police is a sacred and public trust. This is important, because the more force is used by police to carry out its duties, the less trust and support police have in a community. And without that trust and support, police simply cannot be effective. I wish you well.

Today — Still pressing for excellence in policing.

David C. Couper, of Blue Mounds, is a former Madison police chief and an Episcopal priest.