An Open Letter to Our Nation’s Police Leaders

I don’t know when or where I first picked up the idea that mistakes are learning opportunities, but I did.

Over my years in policing, This belief has helped me to reflect on my personal, as well as collective errors It has helped me to fix or correct those mistakes as much as possible. I began by asking myself, “Where’s the learning in this?”

As a retired police chief who led a medium-sized city police department for 20 of my 33 years of service, wrote a book about how to improve policing in America, and continued to blog online about the topic for over a decade, I find myself compelled again to speak out.

Let me begin by saying that you may feel what I have to say is not helpful, or even that I am out of touch regarding my effort to analyze today’s critical state of policing. I understand, but please hear me out.

As a young man just out of four-year tour with the Marines, I entered policing in an era that did not have portable radios, body armor, or semi-automatic pistols. My pre-service training consisted of riding shotgun with a sergeant for a week. When I came back to work after my days off, I was surprised to be assigned, alone, to a patrol district in the city.

Now, in my mid-80s, and comparing my experiences to police work today, you may find my experiences primitive. Yes, it was primitive in our tools and technology, but not in our intention or practice.

Later in my career, I walked the first-ever foot beat in a Black neighborhood. It came about after angry protesters burnt one of the city’s business districts to the ground a few months earlier.

Those of us who walked foot beats had no radios. We were alone. I was a white police officer in a neighborhood that most of my colleagues thought was dangerous and out of control. I requested this assignment because I felt we needed to get closer to those whom we served. My fellow officers (all male in that day) thought I was crazy, but I had an idea. This was an opportunity for me to put into practice what I was learning at the university. Mistakes and errors had been made, now where’s the learning in this? How can it be applied? When you police a neighborhood on foot, with no way to call for help as from those who lived and worked there, you get your first lesson in community-oriented policing.

What I learned was something foundational over 150 years ago ago for a new police department being organized in London. Nine principles of policing were crafted and attributed to Sir Robert Peel. They outlined how he envisioned his new police officers were to act – how they must practice the art of public policing. It was an order that required police to remember that they were part of the community, to act lawfully, with respect, and to use a minimal amount of force in carrying out their duties. If they failed to do this, their public support would be undermined. Using excessive force would erode the public’s trust. Without the public’s trust, policing becomes extremely difficult, then and today..

I learned this as a young officer walking that neighborhood. Folks there did not support criminal behavior, they wanted to live in a safe and orderly neighborhood just like I did. I thought that if I treated community members with respect, they would cooperate with me and, together, we would create a safer place to live — and it happened.

At the same time, on-going protests against the war in Vietnam, and a demand for civil rights, were testing police strategies and operations. Our nation has a Constitution which protects the right of people to assemble and protest, our tactics did not support that right. Again, where’s the learning in this?

When I had the opportunity to lead a police department in a city known for its protests, I sought to improve the way we responded to protests. Instead of physical control and fighting, we worked with community activists as to how we can help them exercise their right to protest. What was the result? Two decades of protests without us causing an incident, few arrests, no buildings torched, or store windows broken. For more see The Madison Method.

Permit me mow to observe what I believe are the mistakes that continue to be problematic in today’s police service and how they could be opportunities to learn.

1. Community trust and support of police is at a low ebb. Without trust and support, a police agency cannot be as effective as they could be. Trust and support are accomplished by working closely with community leaders and being accessible and accountable. Without this, policing becomes like a military occupation. We already know historically how effective that is.

2. Since 9/11, the militarization of nation’s police has become quite obvious; visibly in uniforms and in war-like equipment from the government. This has not only changed the behavior of police themselves, but also how their communities perceive them.

3. The collective failure of police in our nation to reduce the number of persons they kill, especially persons of color, continues to be problematic. Despite pleas from these communities to “stop killing us!” the number of deaths each year remains at about 1,000 since 2014 when journalists (not our government) started counting them.

4. The failure of a collective response from the nation’s police leaders after the death of George Floyd has been striking. After his death four years ago, viewed by millions nationally and internationally, there failed to be a heart-felt response from our nation’s police leaders to reduce the number of deaths by police. This reduction is possible by raising the current (and minimal) legal standard for police to use deadly force and to more effectively train police in the art of de-escalating violent behaviors.

5. At the same time, police responses to Black Lives Matter protests erupted and police, in many cities, appeared militant and violent – quick use of force overrode efforts to keep the city’s peace. By the end of the summer of 2020, property damage, injuries, even deaths, occurred during many of these protests.

6. After the Floyd murder — never forget the iconic picture of a police officer, seemingly nonchalant, kneeling on the neck of a dying Black man crying for his mother. In city after city, citizens called for measures to punish their police departments — not just in Minneapolis. Many communities throughout our nation were extremely angry at their police. This anger caused defunding, even proposals to eliminate their police departments. There were also helpful calls to train police to respond more effectively to mental health incidents. Some community leaders wanted to refer these 9-1-1 calls to unarmed social workers rather than their police. Overall, many city police budgets throughout the nation were cut at a time in which better responses, training, and staffing increases were needed.

7. As a result, police officers felt attacked, disparaged, and unappreciated which not only led to senior officers retiring, but also a dearth of new applicants. Across the board, the mental health of many police officers was degraded and the overall wellness of police deteriorated. Many police agencies, hoping to attract applicants, reduced their entry requirements instead of increasing them for more qualified applicants. After all, in such a negative environment, who would want to become a police officer?

During the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson frequently told the nation, “The ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live there.” It was a good objective. The mission of any military effort outside of one’s own country should be to win the hearts and minds of people there —in Vietnam, we failed to do so and left. To effectively police a free society it is also necessary to operate in such a manner as to win the respect and cooperation of community members — hearts and minds. It is necessary to understand that policing is a joint venture between the community and their police. The focus of community-oriented policing is to win “hearts and minds” by using the methods of Procedural Justice. We couldn’t do it in Vietnam, perhaps we can do it here at home..

In response to the rise in our nation’s gun violence, we must come together and get control of the proliferation of firearms in our nation. We, as a nation, must put teeth into the sincere cry after every school shooting – “Never again!” As difficult as it may be, our nation’s police leaders must lead this charge.

Recent Gallup Polls reveal a number of laws restricting firearms have strong public support. Such as background checks, training requirements, prohibiting dangerous people from possessing firearms, restricting magazine size, and limiting concealed carrying of firearms. This effort should be led by police leaders pointing out that today’s weapons environment is dangerous to their officers as well as to citizens.

The Supreme Court decision (Graham v. Connor), which has come to be the standard for police use of deadly force, should no longer be the policy of our nation’s police. Instead, the standard, and the training leadership surrounding this policy, should be that of European Union members — “absolute necessity.” This would provide an acceptable standard to community members who have been asking for a reduction in the number of people killed by police each year.

As to retention and recruiting, I will reiterate, as I have done over the years, that the job of police leaders is to care for the men and women they are privileged to lead. That responsibility goes to the heart of the problem, the necessary emotional health and wellness of our nation’s police officers. Police organizations must put in place adequate policies and practices to assure officers are emotionally supported and cared for in their work. We have seen too many police officers in our nation take their own lives in response to work-related crises.

Along this line, leaders must overcome the “woe is me” attitude that frequently rumbles through their ranks. In my estimation, policing is not a job, but a calling. That means the work must be raised up by leaders. Does anyone think that the initial training to become a police officer should be less than two years in length followed by a period of close, supervised practice and commensurate salary? Most police officers in our nation know the majority of the work they do is appreciated, positive and supported by their communities. Sure, there are bad events and stressful days, but the nature of policing is helping others. Officers and their leaders must remember if they treat others with dignity and respect, it will, most often than not, be returned in kind.

If the attitude of community members toward police, especially in communities of color and poverty, is to improve, it is first going to require an improvement in the attitude of police. Years ago, during the years of protest, I advertised and called young men and women to join us by asking them to “Join the Other Peace Corps!” It caused many to begin to see the police in a different light. The same kind of effort is needed today – and, thankfully, the ways to do so through today’s social media are abundant.

We must also never forget that social media is something in which a community-oriented police agency needs to actively engage. There must be more highlighting of positive policing and I do not mean “coffee with a cop,” meet Officer Friendly, or how officers “high five” kids walking to school. I am talking about letting the community know about the excellent, difficult, and courageous work police officers do on a day-to-day basis.

After the death of George Floyd, I called for a “safety stand-down” in our nation’s police agencies. This concept comes from our military. It is called for when an accident happens, such as a plane suddenly crashing, and the cause of the crash is not known. When that happens and, for safety’s sake, operations cease until the cause and its correction is found. During the stand-down, current practices are reviewed. A focus is directed to those practices which can be improved so that future operations are safe and effective.

Today, we need to incorporate this idea into policing and use it. It should have occurred nationally after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. It still needs to be done now.

It will not be easy. To change any organization’s practices takes time and three important actions by leaders. They must be passionate about what they are seeking to accomplish. They must be persistent in carrying it out. They must be patient in moving it forward.

This will require a new leadership style for police, a leadership based on servanthood. To better understand this, see the work of Robert Greenleaf and servant leadership. Servant leadership is collaborative and teaches what the best leaders have always known. It reminded me of the Marine Corps practice of leaders eat last. Check it out. Also good leaders always ask more than they tell..

My learning, after many mistakes, was to develop and practice Quality Leadership and the steps necessary to implement it. When I started doing what I expected my officers to do, magic happened. For a better understanding of this, I suggest you read my book and visit my blog.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s my observation and suggestions. It is how I see things today after many years of practice and study. You will never accomplish that which is needed without being deeply involved in the community in which you work. This means telling, selling, and persuading everyday what’s important. This also means explaining to citizens why your officers are here, how you need their help, and asking what needs to be done. You must constantly emphasize that unless we all work together on our problems, are able to listen respectfully to one another, measure our progress, and be committed to continuously improve what we do, all will be for naught. Instead, policing in America will ossify and become more of what no longer works.

Leaders, you must strive to improve, be open, accountable, and set a high bar for your officers. You can do it!

David C. Couper, Chief of Police (Ret), Madison, Wisconsin

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