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Police Chief-Turned Pastor Driven To Reform Law Enforcement

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- An analysis by the Washington Post found police killed nearly 1,000 civilians last year.

That included the shooting of Jamar Clark in north Minneapolis last fall. His death raised questions about justice and race issues not new to a retired Wisconsin police chief.

David Couper served as the top cop in Madison for more than two decades. But as WCCO found, it is what he is doing in retirement that he considers his most important work.

David Couper While Madison's Police Chief
David Couper while he was Madison's police chief. (credit: CBS)

His appeal first appeared in the then Minneapolis Tribune in 1967, in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement.

"Public support is the number-one problem of law enforcement today," Couper said in the article.

Couper was a Minneapolis police officer at the time.

"We see these videos today, but we got to remember in the 1960s, everybody sat down for the 6 o'clock news on one of three channels and watched police in the south beat the crap out of black people," Couper said.

Outspoken about his profession from the start, Couper wore his first few badges in Minnesota; as an officer in Edina and a detective in north Minneapolis. He eventually became Burnsville's police chief, where his unique approach also made waves.

When advertising positions, Couper recruited a "new breed" of police officer to join what he called the "Domestic Peace Corps."

He also required his officers to wear blazers instead of the typical uniform. He believed it would all build better relationships with the communities they served.

David Couper
David Couper (credit: CBS)

"Unless people talk to us, we can't solve anything," Couper said.

Watching what his profession is going through now, Couper cannot help but see parallels to the past.

In his latest book, "Arrested Development," he chronicles his concerns about deadly force, corruption and the militarization of police departments.

Couper has also called on law enforcement to issue a public apology.

"The police have to acknowledge that they've been part of a system that hasn't worked for everyone," Couper said. "It hasn't worked equally for poor people and especially people of color."

Couper regularly writes on his "Improving Police" blog, followed by thousands of readers from around the world. He considers himself a Johnny Appleseed, of sorts.

"I'm throwing all these seeds out into the blogosphere. Some are going to find some fertile soil and they're going to grow," Couper said. "I'm not saying, you know, I've got the way to do that. What I've tried to ask police in the form of my blog is, 'That's a problem -- solve it.'"

Couper admits he has faced backlash from the law enforcement brotherhood, since it is rare for a police officer to publicly question the profession.

"I have a sense that a lot of police leadership is just kind of hunkering down, because if they've been in the field long enough, if you wait long enough it blows over," Couper said. "I don't think this is going to blow over."

David Couper As A Pastor
(credit: CBS)

After retiring as Madison's chief in 1993, Couper went on to seminary. He now serves as the pastor of a small church near Milwaukee.

But he says it is his passion for social justice that has always pushed him forward, along with the rule that all relationships are built on trust.

"Police in a democracy can't do their jobs unless they're trusted. That's the fact," he said.

Couper gave WCCO his take on what has happened in Minneapolis since the Jamar Clark shooting. He believes police did the right thing by letting the protests go on as long as they did.

He expects they will begin again, whether or not the officers involved are charged.

Police Standing Guard
(credit: CBS)

Couper says studies have shown the more you wait and work with protesters, the less violent they will be.

Click here to read Couper's blog.

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