police reform

Marine, Police Chief, Priest: One Man's Journey to Improve Community Relations With the Police

'The issue of how police present themselves regarding their image is an important one and should not be allowed to drift away'

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Six decades ago David Couper served his country as a United States Marine. Today, he serves his parish as a priest at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in North Lake, Wisconsin. But wedged snugly in between those two careers Couper also had a lengthy stint as a police chief. And Couper had one thing in mind when he became Chief of Police in Burnsville, Minnesota in 1968...to bridge the gap between the department and community.

For years, Couper noticed a disconnect and knew rebuilding trust wouldn't come easy. 

One effort Couper committed to early was de-militarizing the police force. From job requirements to position titles, Couper would go on to make changes that had other departments around the country taking notice. One of the most significant transformations would be to change the traditional police uniform to a blazer-style uniform.

"If we change our dress and titles, maybe we'll get some changes in behavior from both the officers and the community," said Couper. 

The new look would consist of navy-blue blazers, French-blue trousers, and name tags declaring: Public Safety Officer. The new look gave officers more of a professional and approachable appearance. It didn't take the community long to notice. The uniform change was very well accepted by the department, according to Couper. Right away, the police in Burnsville looked different and felt different. He says the department immediately noticed a definite shift in attitudes from the public with the new look.

After leaving the Burnsville Police Department in 1972, Couper took his unconventional approach to Madison, Wisconsin, where he would become Chief of Police from 1972 to 1993. 

"Soon, our citizens were beginning to perceive their police officers as more professional. Of course, it was more than looks — it also had to do with how we were behaving; that is, acting like professionals," said Couper.

Today, the departments have returned to the traditional military-style uniforms. Couper says it's part of the "militarization and the warrior cop subculture." 

New federal programs arose in the 90s and 2000s, to help fight against "war on drugs" and "war on terror." The programs authorized the transfer of military hardware to local departments, and soon after school districts. 

"The issue of how police present themselves regarding their image is an important one and should not be allowed to drift away," said Couper.

Even though the departments have changed over the years, some of Couper's implemented strategies remain. Burnsville Police Department continues to be one of the few to require a bachelor's degree to enter the force. 

Today, while Couper serves his community as a priest he also remains at the center of fighting for change within departments. You can read more about him and his mission at https://improvingpolice.blog/

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