David C. Couper - I was a chief of police for twenty-five of my thirty-three years in policing. Since my retirement I’ve kept on eye on police, wrote a couple of books, and maintain an active blog called Improving Police.
History tells me that when people are oppressed they eventually rise up and resist. Force, or its threat, never has been able to hold an oppressed people back. As a white police officer, I participated in that oppression. Not that I intentionally oppressed black and vulnerable people, but I was part of a system that did so. While I arrested many persons of color over the years, I tried to be more of a peacekeeper than oppressor.
It was Dr. King’s assassination that woke me up. I was working the street on the night shift and working on a graduate degree during the day. It was then that I came to realize that unless I changed my approach to people of color in the black neighborhood I patrolled, someone was going to get hurt. I knew from Psychology 101 that when people are fearful, they either fight or flee. That applies to cops as well as citizens. So the problem I struggled with was how to reduce the fear in me and the fear I created in others, especially people of color, when I had contact with them.
I did this by immersing myself in the black community and worked at being accepted. It’s really all about proximity, about closeness; if we maintain racial separation in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social groups as we do today, not much will change.
One of my leadership mantras when I led the police in Madison was:
“Closer is better.”
And that applied not only as to how we were going to police protest groups, but also the entire community. We decentralized operations and sent single beat officers to patrol troubled neighborhoods on foot.
I came to realize what most good cops learn: the most effective tool police officers carry is on their shoulders. It is a unique brain that is mixes empathy and compassion with tactics and technique. When these work together you get a good cop.
Policing will not get better, nor will communities of color begin to trust and support them, until the good cops help to get rid of the bad ones. Good cops know who the bad cops are. They know bad cops are dangerous because they, for one, are unable to control their fear. Good cops don’t want to work with them because they cause trouble and endanger everyone. But too often silence reigns in the ranks.
Yes, police work is dangerous. I came to realize that I could be a target; that I was vulnerable in my uniform when I was on foot and in my vehicle when I drove on patrol. I came to realize that the only control I had was how I treated people. I resolved that while I was a visible target in a hostile community, I would not be the one to cause violence; that I would treat others fairly and with respect. And if I had to use force, I would use it properly knowing that when I had to use it, it was a last resort and absolutely necessary. That was how I became confident that at the end of my work shift I would safely return home to my family.