A Warning to Our Nation’s Police

Retired Chief David Couper shares his thoughts on what law enforcement can do to improve community relations. It’s not about blame, it’s understanding that all sides have to have skin in the game in order to overcome our challenges. Be safe everyone.

Improving Police

Unknown-1Many of you know that I am a person who has put a number of years into the discipline of policing a free society — and I do say “discipline” because policing consists of the multiple disciplines of psychology, sociology, law, emergency medicine, rhetoric, martial arts, history, education, and philosophy (and a few other as well).

And since my retirement, I have been watching, analyzing, writing, and listening to and about police matters. I have recently come to a conclusion about what is going on and a prediction for the future — deep-down, I do hope I am wrong!

Since Ferguson, I have felt a sense of urgency in the nation — and I know that when I write and talk about that urgency has rubbed many of you the wrong way. Agitated or not, police need to look outside themselves and into the cities and communities they serve.

Here’s what…

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Lessons of Ferguson-for the good of law enforcement

I promised to examine the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, just as I did the DOJ’s report on the Brown shooting. The report on Ferguson got the lion’s share of headlines in the past couple of weeks, with most headlines shouting that the PD was engaging in racist behavior, illegal stops, and violations of civil rights. After reading the report in its entirety, which, again, I urge everyone to do, it’s painfully clear that Ferguson has some very troubling systemic problems. I’m not going to tap dance around saying “not every officer”, because common sense tells any intelligent person that’s a given, but the pervasiveness of the policies geared toward revenue generation and statistics alone, paint a picture of a police department in need of a major overhaul. City and Department officials were found to openly request more tickets written from the Chief to increase revenue. One DOJ example:

“City and police leadership pressure officers to write citations, independent of any public safety need, and rely on citation productivity to fund the City budget. In an email from March 2010, the Finance Director wrote to Chief Jackson that “unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. What are your thoughts? Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”

Worse, officials were found to author and forward racist emails on city computers. When people are unafraid of being caught sending racist emails, I’d say the culture is evident. DOJ cites numerous examples throughout the report.

“We have found substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson. For example, we discovered emails circulated by police supervisors and court staff that stereotype racial minorities as criminals, including one email that joked about an abortion by an African-American woman being a means of crime control.”

Statistical analysis, combined with interviews of city and police personnel, examinations of public records, to include emails, provide numerous examples of improper practices of using the PD to generate revenues, and in some more damning examples, outright racist remarks in city correspondence. I’m a retired cop, so I’m concerned with the overall city leadership culture and performance standards (a sanitized way of saying quota) that make otherwise good cops do the wrong thing. It’s a slippery slope when leaders aren’t leading in a moral way. Here’s the DOJ take on it:

“The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation. Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”

In other words, police officers in Ferguson understand that their job security depends upon those tickets. Sadly, they didn’t have a police chief strong enough or honest enough to stand up. Unfortunately, Ferguson isn’t alone in that leadership vacuum. The problem is that when you stop looking at tickets or other enforcement as the public safety instrument, and only consider the next “stat”, the person you encounter becomes less an individual and simply a number. I get that problem. I railed against stat-driven policing for years. Here’s the thing. Stats should never be an “outcome”. The only measure of police success should be the absence of crime in a community and the ability to work with the community to achieve that goal. Period.

The problem gets worse as it progresses. The City of Ferguson, like many other communities, sets a fine for minor offenses, with usually steeper, often criminal penalties for unpaid fines or failure to appear in court. Of course, when the cop on patrol stops the person again, they have a job to do. The person has a criminal offense or warrant. What’s the cop supposed to do? They have to arrest. It’s their job. So, then the citizen is booked into jail, and the cycle grows. Again, I get it. But, what is the police officer supposed to do at that point? It’s not the cop that sets the fines or criminalizes behavior. Our representatives pass laws that cops enforce. It’s just the cops who get the brunt of the blame for enforcing society’s rules. True story.

So, otherwise decent cops, just enforce the rules of society. The bad cops use the sketchy culture of a city like Ferguson, in ways that none of us want to acknowledge. But, just like I called on the Black community to face some tough thoughts last time, I challenge law enforcement not to look away. It’s a fact. A subpar or flat out bad cop uses stats as a cover for their bad behavior, and they can get away with it without strong leadership. If all his chain of command cares about is being at the top of the arrest/ticket stats, then nobody cares how the numbers come. I’ve seen it.

That, my friends in blue, is where we have to change. Now. Because the animosity that bad policies and policing sow, by even a few, get blown exponentially out of proportion, and the result is that it makes every cop on the beat less safe. Police officers must have the willing cooperation of the citizens to be effective. Sir Robert Peal said that at the dawn of our profession. With the proliferation of guns and violence in criminals today, that idea has never been more important. Our profession must have the courage to address systemic issues that lead to undesirable behaviors in our ranks. Our badge is a symbol of public trust. We have the responsibility to adhere to the ethics it represents and stand for justice.

Where are all the witnesses now?

Where are all the witnesses now? Two police officers were standing in front of the Ferguson PD, doing their job, maintaining order during the latest community protest. Out of nowhere, shots rang out from the vicinity of the crowd, striking two officers. One was shot just below his right eye, the bullet lodging behind his right ear. The second was shot in the right shoulder, exiting his back on the right side. By sheer luck or God’s grace they were not killed. Make no mistake that murder was the shooter’s intent. Give credit to the professionalism of the remaining officers that not a shot was fired in return.

But here we are, more than twenty-four hours later and I want to know two things: Where are all the witnesses? Do not tell me nobody saw anything. I’ve heard that tired BS for twenty-five years. Every cop in this country is sick of that excuse. Cops work crime scenes 24/7 where crowds of hundreds all profess ignorance. Except, it seems, when a cop does the shooting. Then, everyone saw it. In my former department, the “community” enabled the murderer of two of our cops to hide among them for nearly a week. Someone in Ferguson–probably more than a few–know who shot those police officers. Where are they? Why aren’t you clamoring for your sixty seconds of fame from the media?

Secondly, community leaders, even you, Mr. Attorney General, where is your responsible leadership? What is necessary right now is a call to identify this shooter and show that you care about true justice. This moment and every moment of violence requires it of good people, if they truly wish to co-exist under the same rule of law. Mr. Holder is getting a lot of press for saying, “This was not someone trying to bring healing to Ferguson. This was a damn punk, a punk who was trying to sow discord.” That’s a great speech line, but what the country needs you to say, sir, is that somebody in Ferguson better give this coward up. Right now. To the protest leaders nationwide, what is required to show your good faith is that every time a trouble maker shoots in a crowd, or hurls rocks, bottles or Molotov cocktails at police officers, then melting back into the “peaceful” crowd, you must push them back out into the open. Identify them as those who are harming your community from inside. They are just as much a part of your problem as any government or law enforcement policy. Those who commit violence in any community should be the enemy of all who want to live in peace.

The City of Ferguson and its police department have been forced to look inwardly to recognize systemic problems. Beyond Ferguson, the conversation has grown nationwide. Law enforcement is undergoing a period of soul searching and adjustment that is needed, and perhaps long overdue. Ferguson has forced out numerous leaders in the name of accountability and the beginnings of reform. For some, nothing will matter, as evidenced by two officers senselessly shot. In the wake of such a violent attack, law enforcement is closing its defensive ranks, and the baby steps of trust between cops and the community in Ferguson have vanished again. What’s been largely missing in this ongoing debate is the hard truth that both sides have to give something. Police cannot turn a blind eye to racist or unlawful behavior in their ranks, but neither can the community. Please, everyone think about this: The bad will always steal the spotlight from the many good. It’s true on both sides. Ferguson terminated its worst offending cops and city officials as a start. Now, it’s your turn, citizens of Ferguson. Turn in this punk who has destroyed the good you’ve tried to do.

When you harbor them in your midst, you lose the credibility. #alllivesmatter

YOU are the person behind the badge

In 1989, the City of Tampa, with the assistance of federal grants designed to add 100,000 cops to the streets, rolled out a hiring campaign for new police recruits. Tampa’s goal was to hire one hundred new officers to combat the crime wave brought on by the crack epidemic racing through our nation. I was one of those 100 new police officers, ready and eager to take on the challenge of community service. I entered the police academy like most of my peers: Clueless about the realities of police work, but with a strong sense of pride and a desire to do the right thing. I’m proud to say that, for the most part, when I retired after nearly twenty-five years, I still tried to maintain that as my guiding principle.006d3289cc71da0a8ea398f6b3c1b34e

The police events in Ferguson, New York, Albuquerque, and Cleveland have saddened me beyond measure. I’m frustrated that civil discourse is all but non-existent. Everyone has dug in on their own side of the divide, using worn-out clichés and useless rhetoric in order to defend what each truly believes in their hearts. Or at least what they’ve been conditioned to believe. What I don’t see nearly enough of is evidence that either side is remotely interested in actually listening to one another. Those old sayings “There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth” or “you’ll learn far more by listening than talking” stand the test of time for a reason. Everyone has a story. Everyone has a truth. Everyone is a product of his/her environment and experiences, which color and forge their belief systems and biases. Yes, both sides have entrenched biases. We cannot even begin to listen with an open heart unless we have the courage to accept this truth.

As a police officer for a quarter of a century, I want to talk about the badge. I still love that slogan: YOU are the person behind the badge. I love it because too often we forget what that badge stands for. Integrity. Honor. Courage. Police officers chafe at the oft-repeated public rant: “I pay your salary!” Usually the statement is hurled at an officer by someone who takes exception to the way an officer is treating them—rightly or wrongly. I get that. But, the fact of the matter is, it’s true. Police officers are paid by citizens to protect and serve their community. This statement belies the complexities, dangers, and unlimited combinations of scenarios, which officers must adapt to each moment of their shifts in order to solve problems, and yes, sometimes survive. The job is hard, no doubt, but it’s what we signed on to do, for better or worse.

That’s exactly why the symbol of the badge is so very important. It requires more of an officer because no other is given so much authority and trust. What other profession has the ability to literally take away someone’s freedom? In a country built upon individual freedom, this is no small thing. “For those to whom much is given, much shall be required”—Luke 12:48. What is required for this vast public trust? The integrity and honesty of the badge. It is what those who wear a badge must continue to strive for. If someone tarnishes the badge, they must be purged. Mistakes can be corrected, but character flaws that expose true moral failure cannot be tolerated. Law enforcement is a profession that requires good character precisely because police officers are charged assessing others behavior and issuing often punitive responses, whether criminal arrest, civil citation, or some other outcome. Officers must always be aware that is what separates them from other citizens. This is the non-negotiable bargain. I get frustrated when I hear officers complain that the Walmart manager caught stealing isn’t front page news, but a cop is. The badge makes you different. Period.

In these difficult times, it’s important to remember what the integrity of the badge truly means. I have faith that law enforcement has the honor and strength to do the soul searching it takes to overcome any challenge. This means even the misguided critique and malice such as we see today. We all know nothing is black or white, or blue vs. black, but we also know we can do better challenging bad behavior. We know that most cops do not abuse the public trust. That narrative right now can only be silenced by steadfast commitment to our code of ethics. I know it seems as if it’s open season on law enforcement. Opportunistic pundits and faux-celebrities, masquerading as community leaders, throw gasoline on the fire rather than engage in thoughtful dialogue that might actually do some good. Please remember your calling. Don’t take the bait and fall into the negative tit for tat. Stay true to your principles. Your actions will speak louder than violent protestors.

The only way to overcome the current negativity is by listening to the voices in our communities, having the courage to address our shortcomings, and doing the job with integrity. Be true to your oath, be diligent crime fighters, and have the wisdom to educate your peers and citizens alike on the virtues of law enforcement. Be the example for your community and your profession. Be the person behind the badge.