Over the weekend, what began as a peaceful protest in Madison, Wis., where I served as chief of police for more than 20 years, erupted in violence. A police vehicle was torched, more than 70 businesses were damaged and in some cases looted, and police deployed tear gas and pepper spray.
Similar unrest has occurred in dozens of cities across the country as citizens have come together to protest the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. For me, it felt like being thrown back to an older time.
I was a police officer in Minneapolis on the night of April 4, 1968, after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Plymouth Avenue was set on fire, businesses were looted and anger seethed in the city.
It was a situation I was determined to prevent when I became Madison’s chief of police a few years later, working together with anti-war and civil rights protesters to keep events from becoming violent. It took a lot of work, a lot of good cops and many changes in the police department — many fought aggressively by the department’s old guard.
Most police officers, in my experience, are not racists and bullies. Most chose to be cops because they actually want to “serve and protect.” But their reputation has been tarnished by the bad cops they have had to work with.
Police are not solely responsible for the systemic inequalities within our society. But they must stop tolerating fellow cops who verbally and physically abuse others.
Floyd’s killing by an officer who placed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes is just one of many instances in which police have used excessive and often lethal force in dealing with racial minorities, black men in particular.
At the heart of the problem is that we cannot get agreement on the best way to police a diverse, free society. We can’t even agree on how police should be trained. Half of all police academies call themselves “stress-based” — another word for a harassing, bullying, military-style boot camp. Having come out of such environments, many police leaders simply follow a coercive style of management and have no idea of the important concept of “servant leadership.”
As I wrote in my book “Arrested Development,” there are four obstacles to improving our nation’s police: anti-intellectualism (police distancing intellectuals and the importance of data and research); violence (the frequent use of force to solve problems, and excessive uses of deadly force); corruption (false reporting, juking statistics and acceptance of “testi-lying”); and discourtesy (disrespecting poor people and citizens of color, a failure to listen).
The present subculture in policing works against improvement efforts, which involve closely working with the community to achieve a goal of safety and order. This contributes to a “them versus us” attitude.
Because policing has for so many years been the realm of white males, there are still vestiges of white supremacy and racism within its ranks.
In 2015, following a series of deadly police shootings, Camden, N.J., rebuilt its police department from scratch, with good results. It involved new training that discouraged the use of force and ways to de-escalate tense situations, as well as the embrace of police body cameras.
Something of this sort — a fresh start — needs to happen in Minneapolis and other departments. It may, in fact, be the only answer.
David C. Couper, chief of police of Madison, Wis., from 1972 to 1993, is now a priest in the Episcopal Church.