David Couper: cop, priest, provocative conversationalist

Madison journalist Rob Zaleski's new book on the former police chief reveals there has always been more to his story.
On the left is retired journalist Rob Zeleski and on the right is the cover of his new book on David CouperDavid Couper
Photo by Steve Apps.
"David Couper Beyond the Badge: Reflections of an Ex-Cop" by Rob Zaleski is out this month from Little Creek Press.

Madison journalist Rob Zaleski estimates he interviewed more than 5,000 people in his lengthy career writing for newspapers, including more than two decades at The Capital Times.

Three stood out: former Marquette basketball coach Al McGuire; progressive attorney and politico Ed Garvey; and police chief turned priest David Couper.

Accomplished, articulate, opinionated, contrary, unafraid — even a journalist as gifted as Zaleski could only scratch the surface in a newspaper story.

Rob thought about that when he left daily newspapers in 2008 and started considering worthy subjects for a nonfiction book.

McGuire died in 2001. But Garvey was alive, feisty as ever. Zaleski took him to lunch in 2010, and the two agreed to collaborate. Zaleski framed the book as a series of conversations.

But the book wasn’t published until 2019. It almost wasn’t published at all — Zaleski once deleted more than 20 hours of interviews! — an adventure I chronicled when “Ed Garvey Unvarnished” appeared.

The Garvey book sold well — “much better than I thought it would,” Zaleski says — and got him thinking about doing another.

He recalls a conversation with his wife, Cindy, when he said, “Maybe I’ve got one more book in me. But do I know anyone else who has had as fascinating a life, and I found as captivating, as Garvey?”

The answer arrives this week, with the publication of “David Couper Beyond the Badge: Reflections of an Ex-Cop,” a series of lively conversations between Zaleski and the controversial Madison police chief turned Episcopal priest. Zaleski will join me to talk about the book Aug. 23 at Mystery to Me bookstore.

The men’s shared history dates back to 1990, when Capital Times editor Dave Zweifel suggested Zaleski write a profile of Couper, then nearly two decades into his role as Madison police chief (and just a few years away from his surprising decision to leave for the priesthood).

“I was bracing for the worst,” Zaleski says. “I had heard he wasn’t the best interview around.”

Savvy journalist that he was, Zaleski didn’t just spend a half hour asking questions of Couper across a desk. He spent the day with him, a fly on the wall as the chief did his job.

“About halfway through the day,” Zaleski says, “he started opening up.”

Zaleski’s piece touched on Couper’s accomplishments — including bringing minorities and women into the department — as well as the controversies his progressive agenda had triggered.

Couper apparently thought enough of the article that years later, as he was finishing a book about policing titled “Arrested Development,” Couper called Zaleski for editing help. Around the same time, Zaleski, having left the newspaper, was working on his first book, a novel called “Searching for Sal.” He decided to model one of his characters — the Rev. Mitch Crandall — on Couper.

“What’s interesting,” Zaleski says, “is that when the novel came out in 2012, Couper found out that the character of Mitch Crandall was based on him and went out and bought 20 copies for family and friends.”

Still, a candid biography was another matter entirely. But when Zaleski reached out in 2019, Couper was intrigued.

“I told him,” Zaleski says, “that if we did the book, I wanted it understood I was not his friend. I was going to hold his feet to the fire. I wanted to hear about the highs and lows of his life. Couper was very enthusiastic from the beginning. It was still a gamble.”

They had their first (of 19) book interviews in December 2019 at the property near Blue Mound State Park that Couper shared with his third wife, Sabine Lobitz (who died in December 2020). The interviews went well from the start, Zaleski says, though Couper grew more candid and expansive as time went on.

“I would say that going into the interviews about his stormy tenure as Madison police chief,” Zaleski says, “I definitely noticed that he felt comfortable with me and that he could trust me. And at that point I became very excited. I’ll be honest. I’m very proud of this book. I think David Couper has some really profound things to say about the future of policing and the state of our society in general.”

I was surprised numerous times reading an advance copy. I wrote a Madison Magazine cover story on Couper in the 1980s and thought I knew his story. It turns out there’s a lot more to know. He was a Marine, a competitive wrestler, and excels at martial arts. Over the years he made serious mistakes, suffered wrenching personal losses, but persevered. Couper’s thoughts on policing — be it in Madison in the 1970s or the “militarization” he feels has infused police forces since 9/11 — are both sincere and provocative.

“He’s a fascinating individual,” Zaleski says. “I find him inspiring. Every time I would leave a session with him, I’d think of how I admired him and his outlook on life.”

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