The following essay was written for “Introduction to Rhetorical Criticism” during my senior year.
Analyzing David Couper’s Body cams aren’t going to make cops better, but college degrees and higher standards will through the Lens of an Informed Citizen
By Marlee Middlebrooks
With the recent rise in tension between police and community relations, USA Today published an opinion article by David Couper, titled Body cams aren’t going to make cops better, but college degrees and higher standards will. Several reasons lead me to choose to critique this rhetoric. Foremost, daily encounters between police officers and community members are critical to pay attention to as current events continue unfolding. Secondly, this rhetoric particularly interested me because it is written by a retired police chief. I found it intriguing to read an article from the viewpoint of a police chief who is boldly critiquing aspects of the police system. Whether he presents strong evidence to support his claims is yet to be determined. Not only do I feel this piece of rhetoric is critical for me to review as an informed citizen, but it is crucial to the culture of our nation in the wake of the issues that the United States is dealing with regarding police departments and police brutality. These issues matter to American citizens foremost. Some communities are outraged with police officers. On the other hand, other communities are defending police officers. Not only do citizens and communities care, but the media cares. Stories are circulating across numerous media outlets often as this issue continues to remain a topic of discussion. In choosing this piece of rhetoric, I applied the representative principle of choice. It is sensible that a retired police chief would have a sound opinion on the effectiveness of body cameras within the United States police system. Furthermore, Couper is the author of Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police. Additionally, he maintains a blog, Improving Police. Therefore, based on this background information, one can conclude that is editorial is representative of his rhetoric and the reason I am applying this principle of choice. As a whole, it can be concluded that Couper is presenting a major claim on a belief in this article. He stakes a claim in the title of his editorial, but he furthers his stance with a “subhead”: ‘Hiring well-educated officers and teaching peer intervention will be the only things that save communities from bad policing.’ Couper is not shying from the opinion that the U.S. has gaping holes in its current police system, and the system is in serious need of reform. He strategically presents his claims by appealing to readers through examples and statistics. He presents the issue to the audience, so they can draw their own conclusions.
Throughout his rhetoric, Couper asserts three major claims. The first is that body cameras will not do more to protect citizens than police officers are already doing. “When I was asked in 2005, after U.K. police forces deployed the devices [police body cameras], whether police departments in the U.S. should do the same, my advice as a retired police chief was that community members should request the devices only if they wanted to feel more protected. They wouldn’t necessarily be more protected, I explained” (Couper). The second claim is that cops across the nation need to be held to a higher educational standard. “New technologies will not improve our nation’s police. But higher standards and better selection during the hiring process will” (Couper). The final claim is that the blue code must be broken, and peer intervention must be implemented in the police system. “Officers must be courageous enough to intervene if they see a cop doing something illegal or stupid that could jeopardize his or her career, family or status within a given community” (Couper).
With each claim Couper states in his rhetoric, he provides some form of evidence. His first claim is that body cameras will not do more to protect citizens. For this claim, his supporting material consists of three examples which meet the tests of evidence; therefore, this is a strength of Couper’s rhetoric. The most detailed example Couper gives to back his claim was of a situation involving broadcast journalist Andrea McCarren, who had been pulled over by police officers in Prince George’s County, Maryland. “According to her account, she was roughed up by at least one of the officers. She said he dislocated her shoulder when he handcuffed her” (Couper). Couper linked McCarren’s account to a personal story she wrote published by the Nieman Reports. In this article, she confirmed Couper’s example stating that “nine police cruisers were on the scene and, despite the DOJ mandate to have working dashboard video cameras running for felony stops, not one of them had recorded the stop” (McCarren). On the other hand, in incidents where excessive force was used with Laquan McDonald and Sandra Bland, cameras did record these encounters. Couper uses all three of these examples to further illustrate his claim that body cameras will not do more to protect U.S. citizens. There are several reasons these examples meet the tests of evidence. Foremost, there are three examples to support his claim. Secondly, they are from a relevant time. The McCarren incident occurred in 2005, the McDonald incident occurred in 2014, and the Bland incident occurred in 2015. Lastly, these are typical examples. Although Couper does not mention counter examples, he reasons through a situation when a body camera was supposed to be effective and was not as well as two situations when body cameras were on and they still did not stop officers from shooting or using force. Couper’s argument is not whether or not these officers were right or wrong, but whether or not body cameras will do more to protect citizens, and with these examples, he is attempting to prove that they will not. “All the equipment in the world won’t turn a dishonest cop into an honest one” (Couper). His examples meet the tests of evidence; therefore, this is a strength of his rhetoric.
Couper’s second claim is that cops need to be held to a higher educational standard, and he uses statistics to support this claim. The section is brief in the rhetoric. “All police officers must be college graduates” (Couper). I believe he is asserting a strong belief that all should be college graduates because he follows this sentence with a 2013 statistic from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, that approximately 25 percent of police officers worked for a department that required at least a two-year degree for entry-level officers. (Reaves). The sample for this study was large enough to draw a conclusion, and it is obvious that it is representative of the population being studied. It included the more than 12,000 local police departments in the United States that employed an estimated 605,000 persons on a full-time basis. One can reasonably conclude that the appropriate statistical procedures were followed since the study comes from a non-biased source, the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Accordingly, since the statistic meets the tests of evidence, this is another strength of Couper’s rhetoric. He uses a statistic to demonstrate his viewpoint that if only 25 percent of our nation’s cops work for a department that require a two-year degree, then we need to begin expecting more from our police system from an educational standpoint. “It’s important to continue working with well-educated cops during their careers by offering training that develops their character, skills and leadership. The proper policing of a free society like ours, with all of its challenges, can only be accomplished by developing and improving the police officer, not his or her hardware” (Couper).
The third claim that Couper makes is that police officers must implement a peer intervention system. To back this claim, Couper details an example of a nurse who was wrongly arrested albeit doing her job, suggesting that “intervention may have helped the Salt Lake City detective” (Couper). He links the example to a Washington Post article that further describes the impact of the incident with its opening paragraph stating, “A Salt Lake City police detective was fired and his supervisor demoted Tuesday for their roles in the arrest of a nurse who was manhandled and shoved screaming into a squad car as she tried to protect the legal rights of an unconscious patient” (Hawkins). Couper suggests through this example that one of the other officers should have stepped in, enacting a form of peer intervention. Although this specific example does meet the tests of evidence, as whole, I believe the evidence for this claim presents a greater weakness of the rhetoric for several reasons. Foremost, Couper does not provide enough examples for the audience. He only includes this one scenario. By doing this, he is expecting the audience to believe this one scenario from Salt Lake City is representative of all police systems nationwide. The audience cannot make a logical conclusion as to whether other cops are also letting their counterparts partake in bad policing or if they are in fact holding their counterparts to a higher standard. Secondly, Couper does not account for alternative factors in his reasoning. What could be keeping cops from intervening? Each specific scenario will present different factors. What protocol should cops abide by when intervening? Should our police really be policing our police? If a cop intervenes, could this hamper the investigation in a way that would hurt the victim more? I am not proposing these questions to suggest that Couper’s claim is incorrect. These questions are proposed merely to bring awareness to the fact that Couper does not account for alternative factors. Wrong is wrong. However, what is the absolute best manner to stop wrongdoing? Is peer intervention the most effective manner? Maybe. Maybe not.
Despite asserting a strong argument for his position throughout his rhetoric, Couper does not attempt to address or refute any counterarguments in his piece. This is a weakness in his rhetoric. Some people do believe that body cameras are protecting citizens because they are capturing incidents on camera and therefore provide for independent verification. At the very least, some people groups, like many African Americans who have been in conflict with police officers, may feel that body cameras can do more, if not as much, to protect them as some of the other initiatives Couper is suggestive like higher education and peer intervention. For example, an article published in Time stated that, “The police department had video that showed what happened was inconsistent with the officer’s initial statement, thanks to the body-worn camera on the officer …. As the investigation continues, one thing is absolutely clear—video technology is shaping our world, particularly in the context of police oversight” (Wiley). By ignoring these concerns and simply proposing to the audience more data that supports his overarching claims, such as linking to an in-depth study that concluded “that there was no ‘statistically significant average’ effect of body-worn cameras for officers of Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department,” Couper is doing a disservice to his rhetoric (Couper). The study he cited is the same one that the NPR focused the majority of an article on it recently published. According to the NPR article, “When you have a department in that kind of state [Washington D.C], I don’t think you’re going to see large reductions in use of force and complaints, because you don’t need to. There is no large number of excessive uses of force that need to be eliminated” (Greenfieldboyce). The problem with citing examples like this is that, like the NPR mentions, there is a limitation to the population studied. It fits nicely into Couper’s claim, but once again, he forwent acknowledging other counterarguments.
Even though Couper fails to explicitly address counterarguments throughout his rhetoric, it is obvious that he is incredibly consistent with his voice and his claims. From beginning to end, his stance is does not waver. This consistency in his reasoning throughout his editorial is a strength of the rhetoric. He introduces his piece by admitting to the audience that, “I was not so convinced,” more than ten years ago when the United Kingdom first introduced police body cameras to hold cops accountable (Couper). Through the end of the article his position does not falter. “Good policing comes from the heart, and technology doesn’t govern that,” says Couper as he concludes his piece. This consistency transcends this rhetoric. Couper maintains a blog titled Improving Police where the subhead is “by a veteran chief who is committed to improving police leadership, trust, effectiveness, and officer safety” (Couper). On the blog, he posts articles weekly dealing with these issues. He links to his blog in his article. Although some may view it as a personal plug, I think it adds some credibility to his piece. Even if there are weaknesses in his rhetoric, in this instance, this shows that he didn’t decide to randomly discuss police relations but rather, he has thoughtfully considered these issues on multiple occasions and with consistent reasoning. For this reason, I believe this is a strength.
As a whole, I believe this paper is mediocre in its strength. Based on what I have concluded above, there are three obvious strengths and two obvious weaknesses. Couper supports his first two claims with material that meets the tests of evidence. His third claim, however, does not account for alternative factors. Additionally, in his overall rhetoric, he does not address counterarguments. His voice throughout his writing, though, does remain consistent. Based on these conclusions, I believe Couper’s rhetoric is strong, but there are obvious areas that could make his piece even stronger and exceed the writing of standard editorials.
Throughout his rhetoric, Couper employs a multitude of rhetorical strategies. The most important strategy he uses is evidence oriented rational argument specifically through examples and statistics. He describes Andrea McCarren’s encounter with police to back his first claim, and he cites that 25 percent of cop’s work where a two-year degree is required to back his second claim. I extensively explained this rational argument in previous paragraphs when testing the support material. It is important to be aware that Couper also makes an appeal to values, needs and symbols when describing peer intervention. Specifically, Couper appeals to the value of brotherhood and support while also appealing to the value of abiding by a strict code of ethics. “They [police officers] should be trained on when and how to stop bad behavior by fellow officers. They must memorize and live by a new code, one that says: ‘I care about you, and I will intervene to stop you when I think you are jeopardizing your career or endangering your community’” (Couper). Lastly, Couper implements intrinsic credibility by siting his experience. Within a few paragraphs of the text, the piece reads, “When I was asked in 2005, after U.K. police forces deployed the devices, whether police departments in the U.S. should do the same, my advice as a retired police chief was that…” (Couper). From this point forward, the audience knows that Couper is writing with some expertise. He has worked in the field. Overall, these are some of the main rhetorical strategies that Couper deploys in his rhetoric.
On its face, I do not believe this rhetoric is manipulative in nature. It does not attack people groups or individuals rather the rhetoric seeks to refute some deeply held beliefs. By not addressing counterarguments, I do not think the rhetor provides a clear avenue for other voices; however, I do not feel that the rhetor is aggressive in his tone and maliciously excludes other voices. His claims are clear, and his evidence is ample and proven to meet the tests of evidence. He does not attempt to overwhelm the audience with weak evidence and confrontative strategies. Based on these considerations, I do not believe the rhetor utilizes manipulation.
In conclusion, I believe this rhetoric is well written with several strong points; however, there is room for improvement. This is not a deceptive piece of rhetoric. Couper is knowledgeable in his field, and he feels strongly that our police system needs reform. His claims are intelligent. From a rhetorical standpoint, in the future, he could present them differently to make his case stronger. By including even more evidence, accounting for alternative factors, and acknowledging counter arguments, Couper could better defend his position and make a more convincing case for his claims. His position is semi-strong as it stands. Our nation needs people like Couper who are brave enough to challenge the system and offer ideas for reform if we are going to begin seeing substantial change in the tension between police and community relations. I applaud Couper in his efforts working with this goal in mind.
Couper, David. “Body cams aren’t going to make cops better, but college degrees and higher standards will.” USA Today, 27 Oct. 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/policing/spotlight/2017/10/27/body-cams-arent-going-make-cops-better-but-college-degrees-and-higher-standards/805096001/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2017.
Couper, David. Improving Police. WordPress, https://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/. Accessed 27 Oct. 2017.
Greenfieldboyce, Nell. “Body Cam Study Shows No Effect on Police Use of Force or Citizen Complaints.” NPR, 20 Oct. 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/10/20/558832090/body-cam-study-shows-no-effect-on-police-use-of-force-or-citizen-complaints. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.
Hawkins, Derek. “Utah police officer fired after manhandling, arresting nurse who was doing her job.” The Washington Post, 11 Oct. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/10/10/utah-police-officer-fired-after-manhandling-arresting-nurse-who-was-doing-her-job/?utm_term=.bae176ef17dc. Accessed 1 Nov. 2017.
McCarren, Andrea. “Two Years Later, Justice Denied.” Nieman Reports, 15 June 2007, http://niemanreports.org/articles/two-years-later-justice-denied/. Accessed 27 Oct. 2017.
Reaves, Brian. “Local Police Departments, 2013: Personnel, Policies, and Practices” Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2015, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/lpd13ppp.pdf. Accessed 27 Oct. 2017.
Wiley, Maya. “Body Cameras Help Everyone—Including the Police.” TIME, 9 May 2017. http://time.com/4771417/jordan-edwards-body-cameras-police/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.
Feature photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash.