“Madison Model” Still Cited After 20 Years For “Democratic Policing”


From 1973 to 1993, David Couper was police chief in Madison, Wi., the Big Ten university town that The Marshall Project says became a laboratory for his ideas about community policing and community engagement. He earned a reputation as a progressive reformer at a time when the war on drugs and “tough on crime” were law enforcement mantras. His “Madison Model” contended that “police officers are essentially social workers in blue.” One principle was that it was acceptable to avoid confrontations with an armed suspect, rather than fire guns in volatile exchanges. Now 77 and an Episcopal priest, Couper remains concerned with how law enforcement responds to new challenges. For Madison, that is the death of Tony Robinson, a 19-year-old unarmed biracial man, who was killed by a white policeman’s bullets in March.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said this week that his office would not seek criminal charges against the officer, Matthew Kenny. The Madison Model has not faced widespread criticism. As discussed in a Justice Department report from more than 20 years ago, it is still a go-to program relied on by law-enforcement consultants and community policing experts. “It is O.K. to back off. It is O.K. to de-escalate. It is O.K. to find better alternatives; you don't have to be so quick to use deadly force,” Couper said. He calls his approach “democratic policing.” He bases his model on a variety of his policies, such as telling officers to refrain from using force during mass demonstrations and to protect people first, property second.

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