Interview with Retired Police Chief and Author David Couper
by Charles Sipe on February 15, 2012
We had the great opportunity to interview David Couper who was formerly the Madison Wisconsin Chief of Police and has recently written his first book titled Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption, and the Seven Necessary Steps to Improve Our Nation’s Police. We discussed his career progression to chief of police, advice for new police recruits, and the importance of a college degree for law enforcement professionals.
Can you tell us why you decided to choose a career in law enforcement and how you got your first job in this field?
I go over this in my new book; the career path I took and how I was inadvertently preparing to lead a police department just like Madison. After high school (1956), I signed up for a tour in the Marines. I wanted to be an officer but knew that I needed to have a college degree. After my enlistment, I returned to my hometown, Minneapolis, and enrolled at the University of Minnesota. But I now had a wife and infant son and I needed a job, preferably at night, so I could attend classes at the university. That led me to seek a police job. There was an old saying that all you could do after a tour in the Marines was be a janitor or a cop. I was tired of swabbing decks.
What was your career path from when you started in law enforcement until you were promoted to Chief of Police?
My first job was as a patrolman in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis. I was 21 years of age and could not apply to the Minneapolis department because the age of application was 23 at the time. My training consisted of riding with a sergeant for a week. When I returned to work, my sergeant gave me the keys to a squad car, a ticket book, city map, and statute book. I was on my own. After two years in Edina, and now being 23 years of age, I applied for and was hired by Minneapolis. I worked as a patrol and tactical officer, member of the police diving team, training officer in defensive tactics (I had a black belt in Taekwondo). Shortly after I received my B.A. degree I was promoted to detective. I was accepted into graduate school and was working on my master’s degree in sociology when the city manager of Burnsville asked me if I wanted to become their new public safety director (which included the duties of both police and fire chief). After four years at Burnsville where we piloted neighborhood policing, a bachelor’s degree entrance requirement, and non-military style uniforms (blazers and slacks), I applied for and was selected to be Madison’s new chief of police after nearly a year-long process.
How did your black belt in Taekwondo help you in your law enforcement career?
I have intensely practiced the Asian martial arts of Judo, Taekwondo, Kendo, and the Japanese sword. What I found when I joined the police was that these arts helped me keep calm in the face of challenge and danger on the street and, when off-duty, balanced my life and kept me fit. These arts gave me confidence that I didn’t have to rely on a firearm to get the job done. I spent a good part of my career teaching defensive tactics to police based on these arts. I am as surprised today as I was a half-century ago that police do not consider these arts to be essential skills and as important for them as combat shooting skills. I wondered then, and I still wonder today, why a police officer would go out onto the street without being expert or at least highly-qualified in these skills. I guess what I am really talking about in my book is the kind of man and woman personified in the Japanese concept of “bushido”: loyal duty, justice, compassion, complete sincerity, honor, polite courtesy, and heroic courage.
Why do you think a college education is important for law enforcement professionals to obtain?
The job is simply too important and complex to be left to those without an advanced education. Policing is too important in a democracy such as ours to be left to those who have not had the benefit of a broad liberal arts education. That is why I am opposed to narrow law enforcement education curricula. Instead, I want cops who know history, art, psychology, law and other disciplines which make up an education in the liberal arts.
Why did you write your book and what is the main message that you want to communicate?
After I left policing to answer a call to ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church I thought policing in our country was on the move. We had attracted more educated candidates, they were more representative of America’s diversity and community-oriented and problem-oriented policing seemed to be the norm. But that didn’t happen. September 11, 2001 changed everything. I believe police can be much better than they appear to be. They can be protectors of our social under-class and defenders of the Bill of Rights. Police should be the glue that holds a diverse society together. And in my book, I outline the seven steps that are necessary in order to make that happen.
What qualities or skills do you think are important for candidates to possess in order to get hired and be successful in this field?
This is what I outlined to the graduating class of the first officers I hired in Madison. These expectations, qualities and skills should apply to all police officers who serve in a free society:
Employ your full skill at all times and to all persons.
Prevent, manage, or intervene in situations requiring police service.
Be open, accept change in this changing world.
Develop and maintain a broad perspective of your function and the society in which you work,
Be flexible and develop the ability to grow with the people you serve.
What advice would you give to new recruits who are just starting out in their careers?
Continue your education and the development of you police skills. Be open and flexible, think and grow. Develop a life and friends outside of police – it will keep you sane. I would also add what my first training officer told me: “Remember, Couper, everything that was illegal and wrong before you put on a badge will still be illegal and wrong.”
Where can people find information on your upcoming book?
Look for it on Amazon.com in April. In the meantime, follow my blog, “Improving Police” at https://improvingpolice.wordpress.com.
We thank Chief Couper for taking the time to share his insights with our audience. If you are interested in learning more about earning a degree, head over to our law enforcement degree page.