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Thursday, December 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Our cops need reform -- again
The nation must take a fresh look at its policing policies
Couper: Many of our police leaders have forgotten about their role in defending the Constitution.
Couper: Many of our police leaders have forgotten about their role in defending the Constitution.

Dear President-Elect Barack Obama,

I know you have a lot on your plate: the economy, health care, two wars. Those are important tasks. But I don't want you and your staff to overlook the reform needed in our nation's criminal justice system.

It's been more than 40 years since President Johnson created the last federal commission to look into our justice system and recommend improvements. At the time, I was a beat cop in Minneapolis, following a stint in the Marines.

I heard that the commission's report focused on educating police to function in our complex society. I also learned that tuition grants were available for police officers like me who wanted to get a college education. I jumped at the chance, and so did many of my colleagues.

We organized a group called the "college cops" to pursue the goal of police reform. We realized that too many drunks, thieves, bullies and incompetents were wearing the same uniform we did. We began to speak out about the need for higher hiring standards.

It became clear to us that we needed to change our responses to civil rights "sit-ins" and anti-war protests. We looked at our leaders and thought we could do a better job. Over time, some of us got the chance to prove it.

In 1972, after I became Madison's chief of police, I implemented the four-year college degree requirement recommended by Johnson's commission. Our hiring posters proclaimed, "Join the Other Peace Corps!" I experimented with different policing styles and approaches to crowd control, neighborhood policing and even instituted a "non-military"-style police uniform.

My goal was to re-envision the role of police. I wanted my officers to be vitally connected to and work with the people in the neighborhoods they were privileged to serve. I wanted them to be constitutional officers - defenders of our Bill of Rights - and even community organizers.

I left the Madison Police Department in 1993, after more than 20 years as chief. Now most of the people I brought on board have, like me, retired. I don't see many police leaders with the same commitment to democratic policing and experimentation that we had. And that makes me sad.

Much of this owes to that fateful day in September 2001, when fear came down on the nation and its police.

When that happened, many of our police leaders forgot about their role in defending the Constitution. In their fear, some willingly engaged in illegal surveillances, went along with "free speech" zones, and looked the other way when their officers overreacted.

Police started doing immigration enforcement work, and became faceless paramilitary forces. Billions of Homeland Security dollars have gone to buy military-style equipment for local police departments, not improve the police themselves. We've turned away from community policing and toward the new and ill-defined role of preventing terrorism.

For these and other reasons, Mr. President-Elect, our nation must again deeply and intensively examine its police (along with other elements of the justice system). Police play a vital role in who we are as a nation. We will not have freedom and justice in our courts unless it is first a working value of our police.

Our nation needs men and women who are broadly educated in the liberal arts. They need exposure to history, philosophy, sociology, law, anthropology, psychology, foreign languages and even art. Far too often the standard police "education" curriculum has been designed and taught by cops, in classrooms filled with cops or those who wish to be. This is not education - it is training.

And, yes, police also must be well trained, and well compensated. We will never eliminate corruption in the police ranks solely by imposing external controls and organizing watchdog groups. Instead, it must be done by selecting the best from among us, developing their internal controls, building a strong foundation for ethical and moral behavior and a commitment to the highest ideals of public service.

Sure, police officers need to be crime fighters, but it is not unreasonable to expect that they will also protect our rights, resolve and mediate conflict, and care for us while they enforce the law.

We have a right to expect police to be respectful and courteous, well informed, honest and sparing in their use of force. This builds the trust police need to function effectively in a democracy such as ours.

David Couper, Madison's chief of police from 1972 to 1993, is now a retired Episcopal priest. He currently is working on a book about the need to reform our nation's police.

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