This article first appeared in Isthmus on Sept. 11, 1987
On the wall of Madison Police Chief David Couper's office are portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. An inscription under Gandhi's picture reads, "In a gentle way, you can shake the world." In such a manner Couper has shaken the department.
Couper, now in his 15th year as chief of police, came to power during the dying days of an antiwar era that saw Madison police beating up protesters in the streets. As a department outsider with reformist ideas, Couper faced an uphill battle. The Madison Police Department (MPD) was all but antiquated, and its reputation was badly damaged in the community. Debates raged over whether to require post-high school education for police recruits, and the prospect of hiring female officers.
The new chief instituted subtle changes, allowing some officers to wear blazers instead of uniforms and rescinding a ban on moustaches and beards. But there was also a pervasive reorganization, which met with widespread dissension within the department.
Those feelings have apparently since been overcome. Under Couper's direction, the MPD has been transformed into one of the most innovative and forward-looking departments in the country. It has won plaudits from police experts, served as a national model for police-community relations and attracted an unusually high caliber of officers. But it continues to be plagued by a poor minority ratio and other racial matters.
Couper's reformist policies have not always been favorably received. In August 1973, eight months after he took control, 103 of the city's 272 officers signed a petition calling for an investigation of "serious rumors about fraud, mistrust and mismanagement." The petition listed 22 separate complaints against Couper and claimed there was a serious problem with morale. It also accused Couper of promoting officers on the basis of favoritism instead of seniority.
Couper dismissed the charges as "neurosis" traditionally associated with change in police departments. While the police and fire commission dallied, he ordered his officers to attend a series of meetings to air their gripes. He concluded that the complaints resulted from "misinterpretation of his directives. The commission essentially agreed, clearing the chief of all but four complaints, for which he received token reprimands.
Steve Gilfoy, president of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, one of two recognized police unions, recalls, "When [Couper] came he had a pretty liberal attitude.... We butted heads a lot, many times on a daily basis." Now, however, Gilfoy has positive things to say about Couper's handling of the department: "It certainly helped put up lines of communication between the officer and the community. It's a hell of a difference."
The evolution of opinion regarding Couper underscores the progress he has made. Outside observers now laud the MPD as being in the vanguard nationally of police reform. The department, they say, exudes a willingness to try new ideas and has a solid core of highly educated and qualified officers to make those ideas work.
In recent years, the MPD has been undergoing a major restructuring process both within the department and in the area of police-community relations. Last year the department launched a "decentralization" effort, based on the concept of Community-Oriented Policing, or COP. Eight neighborhood bureaus have been installed, and new beat patrols were added. The four-year-old CrimeStoppers program and a plethora of newborn Neighborhood Watch Groups have also aided the process.
While many police organizations have retained a paramilitary structure and an antagonistic attitude toward the communities they serve, the MPD has initiated programs designed to change the management hierarchy of the department -- and, indeed, the nature of police work itself. And although many of the reforms are not new ideas, few other police departments in the country have managed to implement them.
The COP program is part of a citywide initiative called the Quality and Productivity Programs. That program, which encompasses eight city departments, is based on the so-called Deming Way, a system designed to improve productivity by involving low-level employees in the management process. According to mayoral aide Michael Williamson, Madison is one of the first cities in the nation to apply Deming Way precepts to government operations.
Perhaps the most unique police program to derive from the quality and productivity effort is the Experimental Police District (EPD). Beginning in January 1988, about 16% of the city -- including all of the 13th and 14th portions of the 9th and 10th aldermanic districts -- will be under the jurisdiction of the EPD, which is designed to test unconventional ideas in police work. The department is seeking to open a new building for the 38 participating officers. The program is a prime candidate for a $370,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice.
"It's a change of the culture of the organization," says Capt. Ted Balistreri, in charge of planning for the EPD project team. "We are attempting to change the management structure of the whole department."
Madison's EPD initiative began last fall with a survey of citizens' attitudes toward the department. The results, published in a 50-page report, included a number of criticisms.
Although residents indicated an overall satisfaction with emergency response time and the quality of police personnel, there was general dissatisfaction regarding nonemergency complaints and the number of neighborhood patrols. The key problem, according to the survey, is police distance from the community.
Balistreri says the survey was an important first step. "We'd always viewed ourselves as being community-oriented and close to the citizens," he says. "Here we had officers riding in the area and meeting with [citizens]. And yet, at the same time, we didn't have any idea that these were some of the problems the citizens had. I think it was very enlightening for us to see that."
The EPD will be an ongoing effort to implement and test new methods of policing. It will entail closer contacts between officers and the community. Community trends and problems will also be studies.
Central to the EPD will be a change in management style. Lower-ranking patrol officers will be intimately involved in decision-making, and may even have the opportunity to pick their own managers.
Lt. Michael Masterson, a member of the EPD project team, notes that other police departments who have gone to COP programs have failed precisely because of their unwillingness to ease traditional hierarchies of command. "The management was set up to run it real strict instead of allowing [lower-level officers] to go out and make decisions on their own," he says.
According to Masterson, the MPD is determined to take another tack: "People closest to the problem are the most knowledgeable about it and probably have the ready solution rather than somebody who's five times removed sitting in a captain's office," he says.
The department has already taken drastic steps to revamp its management. Since 1983, the MPD has been the only department in the country with an Officers Advisory Committee (OAC), a group of 10 elected officers who serve as a direct advisory body to the chief.
Capt. Silverwood, one of the officers on the board, says that although the committee does not make the final decisions, it does provide a necessary channel of communication between the chief and the rest of the department.
"Not only do they provide a lot of input on issues, but they raise issues," Silverwood says. "I think they're really successful at identifying issues that might not otherwise be identified and providing a perspective from people that are doing every day, in many cases, on-the-street work."
Chief Couper agrees the OAC has been a positive influence. "The bosses aren't the only ones who have all the knowledge," he says.
During the past five years, a number of other programs have significantly changed the nature of the department:
- CrimeStoppers. Since May 1983 the MPD has used the most pervasive available medium -- television -- to involve the community in crime investigation. Each week, with the help of local TV stations, officers stage a "dramatic reenactment" of a crime. According to Officer Herb Williams, head of the program, CrimeStoppers has thus far logged 133 arrests, recovered $176,689 in stolen property, confiscated $219,425 worth of narcotics and issued $14,200 in reward money.
- Sensitive Crimes Unit. Created in 1983, this unit consists of three full-time detectives trained to deal with child abuse, sexual assault, domestic battery and other crimes that often have traumatic effects. Detective Steve Koecke, a 16-year veteran, describes his job as one of social worker, sleuth, arbitrator and manager. Koecke says he works closely with the Dane County Department of Social Services, Dane County Advocates for Battered Women, the Rape Crisis Center and the district attorney.
- Bike Monitor Program. A 1982 study of Madison bicycle traffic estimated there were a total of 150,000 bikes in Madison, 50,000 of which will be on the street during a typical summer day -- creating monumental traffic-management problems. Hence, in 1983, the MPD hired eight "uniformed civilians" to patrol downtown streets on bicycles. Although they are not official police officers, bike monitors receive about 80 hours of classroom and on-the-street training, and have the power to issue citations. Coordinator Kevin Yellick says the program also offers bike safety classes, provides a licensing table on the UW Library Mall and patrols bike paths to inspect for damage.
- Quality Leadership Seminars. In April, May and June of this year, police personnel in supervisory positions attended a series of management seminars designed to outline department goals and expectations, consider social trends and study law enforcement philosophies. The program provides continuing education for managers, a rarity in police organizations.
- Neighborhood Bureaus. the department has established eight new neighborhood bureaus and created regular beats for officers in an effort to establish neighborhood rapport. The bureaus will also serve as complaint centers where citizens can discuss neighborhood problems.
- Complaint Procedures. Lt. Jerry Hinz, a supervisor in charge of handling citizen complaints against officers, says the department follows an open-door policy designed to be "corrective and progressive." Investigators look at the employee's experience, work record and personal history. "We ask, 'Is there a reason the employee is doing this?'" Hinz says, adding that the MPD policy is vastly different from other departments, which require automatic termination for some policy violations.
Another unique feature of the Madison Police Department is its highly educated pool of officers. One sample of 21 police recruits in 1983 shows that all 21 had a college education, five had master's degrees, two had a degree in law, five had done volunteer social work and five had previous experience in police work.
Madison police officers complete 1,100 hours of training before receiving patrol assignments. Officers must also complete 40 hours of in-service training annually.
Couper says the MPD is able to attract highly qualified recruits because of its competitive pay scale -- about $28,000 per year starting salary for patrol officers -- as well as its reputation for progressive leadership. As he puts it, "You cannot attract people to come to a traditional paramilitary organization. You're not going to get the best people."
Others share Couper's upbeat assessment of the department. "They are a very sophisticated crowd, says Prof. Jack Ladinsky, a sociologist and specialist in criminal justice at the UW-Madison. According to Ladinsky, Madison police officers are "well educated, well read," and "smart as hell."
Ladinsky also lauds the MPD's problem-oriented attitude. Traditional police departments, he says, tend to have a quick-fix service mentality of responding to emergencies and investigating crimes; Madison also uses statistical data and community input to identify and address specific problems.
For Couper, reform is an ongoing process, and one that must involve the community as a whole. Citizens who forfeit their opportunities for input, he says, "have the police departments they deserve."
A 28-year veteran of police work (having served previously as a police officer in Minneapolis as well as director of public safety in Burnsville, Minn.), Couper still describes himself as a "developing leader." "I don't think I'm where I want to be," he says of his performance. "Hopefully by the time I'm done around here I'll achieve that...then I'll think I'm good at it."
Couper takes his leadership role very seriously. In an excerpt from his upcoming book, A Consumer's Guide to Police, Couper writes, "A strong effective police chief will not hesitate to take public stands on controversial issues in the community -- balancing legitimate law enforcement needs of the officers and the safety concerns of the community. It is the chief's responsibility to educate each group about the other's interests and perspectives, recognizing that a perfect solution to such conflicts is rare.
Despite the MPD's outwardly progressive stance, there is one glaring area in which its record leaves much to be desired. The past five years have seen a steady flow of racist incidents and accusations of racism involving the department.
In late 1982 and 1983, Officer Philip Wilder and Detective John Winston, both black, filed charges with the Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (DILHR) claiming the police department had discriminated against them on the basis of race. Wilder claimed officers had purposely concealed the date and time of seminars instrumental in an officer's advancement; Winston claimed he was wrongly denied a promotion examination for lieutenant.
DILHR found no substantiation for Winston's complaint and some validity in Wilder's. Wilder later filed a suit against the department charging discrimination by his supervisor when he requested sick leave for an on-the-job injury. He settled out of court for about $60,000. (Wilder has since left the department; Winston declined to be interviewed for this article.)
In January 1985 a subcommittee of the Police and Fire Commission was formed to study promotional practices in the department. The final report, issued six months later, claimed that "peer mechanisms" within the department prevented minority officers from obtaining adequate information about promotional practices. The report also faulted the department for putting too much emphasis on black officers' written examinations, as opposed to job performance.
Recently, veteran officer Robert Balistreri was suspended in connection with the spray-painting of the words "Niggers Suck" on the wall of a black-owned business on Madison's west side. Balistreri has since been charged with attempting to influence a witness in the investigation and with helping to burn a statue in Newville Park at the corner of Beld and Bram streets. The park is named after Kenneth Newville, a member of a prominent Madison black family.
A recent personnel survey provided by Capt. Silverwood also suggests minority officers are underrepresented in the department. Of 296 officers currently on the force, only 24 are nonwhite, and fewer than 20% are female. For officers ranking lieutenant and above, there are no blacks and only two women. There are two minority male detectives.
Most officers tell of Couper's firm and absolute intolerance of racist or sexist behavior in the department. Few will deny, however, that there still are racist cops.
Couper believes that racial problems will ease as more black officers are hired. At present, though, the department's record on racial matters cuts against the grain of its progressivism and demonstrates that reform policing, even in Madison, still has a long road ahead.