Dallas Police Chief David Brown Rises to the Call
The heat of the Texas summer clung tightly to the streets of Dallas on the evening of July 7, 2016, as a 25-year-old U.S. Army veteran prepared for an assault against the city’s police force. The day had been a peaceful one so far, but that was about to change.
Dallas Chief of Police David Brown stayed late that evening. The Black Lives Matter march he was monitoring filled the streets of his downtown with more than 800 protesters and nearly 100 police officers. As the demonstration neared its end, Brown headed for his condominium home just across the street from Headquarters.
It was about 9 pm when Brown took off his gun belt at home, preparing to call it a night. But the shrill of the phone changed those plans.
On the other end of the call was an out-of-breath officer with devastating news that would knock Dallas breathless and catapult Brown into the national spotlight. The most vicious, premeditated attack against a law enforcement organization since the 9/11 terrorist attacks had just occurred on his turf.
“It was the worst news you want to hear as a cop, that you have officers down,” Brown told Texas Monthly.
It had been a contentious day in the nation.
Earlier, President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was at a campaign event in Cincinnati, defending himself against accusations that he had posted an anti-Semitic tweet. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was defending her use of multiple private email servers to send classified information.
President Barrack Obama was on a trip in Warsaw, Poland, to attend the NATO summit, where he took time from the meetings to reflect cautiously upon the deaths of two civilians killed by police officers in the previous days. Alton Sterling was killed on July 5, 2016, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile was killed the next day in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
Addressing the assembled media and the United States, the president said, “We have seen tragedies like this too many times…all of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings because these are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”
Dallas wasn’t the only place feeling the heat that summer; a ferocious political fever burned across the entirety of the American landscape.
The notion of solidarity had been thrown asunder in 2016, becoming a nearly unrecognizable idea as the nation divided into polar opposites by two polarizing candidates who found it impossible to find the traction to unite the citizens of their country. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the last time the nation was similarly divided by such intense partisan animosity was during the American Civil War.
The hangover is still very real.
The president urged the citizens of the U.S. to understand that it is possible and necessary to support local law enforcement while reforming it, saying, “When people say black lives matter, it doesn’t mean blue lives don’t matter.” Not everyone got the message, or cared to listen, for later that night, those notions were dismantled by gunfire.
Downtown Dallas was alive with a Black Lives Matter protest a few hours after President Obama’s press conference. The Dallas police, sensing an urgency to bridge the community and law enforcement, wore smiles and posed for pictures with marchers, assuring them in a casual way that their constitutional right to peacefully assemble was still intact, assuring them that they were supported and safe with them. It appeared as though the officers were looking to show that life in the Dallas community could be different, if for only a single evening – but the evening quickly turned.
A rapid about-face occurred as shots blazed through the rhythmic chants of 800 activists. “Shots fired. Officer down. Assist officer,” an officer snapped across police scanners as gunfire crackled in the background. “We got a guy with a long rifle. We don’t know where the hell he is at!”
The Dallas police on the streets instinctively shielded marchers and called out instructions for their survival.
Their quick actions saved all civilian lives while five police officers died and nine suffered injuries. The gunman fled inside a downtown college building where he was cornered by police. Negotiators spent over two hours unsuccessfully attempting to coax him out.
The gunman was injured and maniacal, laughing, singing, and mocking officers as he asked them how many he had killed. He made it clear he did not like police officers and would kill more if given the opportunity. After careful planning and consideration with city officials, Brown sent in a robot armed with explosives to end the standoff. No police force in the nation had ever used a device of this nature to take out a suspect, but it was a risk Police Chief David Brown accepted, and the perpetrator was killed when the explosives were detonated.
After all the bloodshed and chaos of the week—a burgeoning battle between police and the community—it was now time for someone to step up to calm the nation; it wouldn’t be President Obama, or the Republican and Democratic candidates looking to replace him. It wouldn’t be the U.S. Congress. House Majority Leader Kevin MacCarthy admitted that the U.S. Federal Government was failing.
“Too many families are mourning losses this week,” MacCarthy said. “There is an inability in this House to help this nation unite and heal the wounds that are out there.”
The calming force would come from Dallas Police Chief David Brown
A few days after the attack, at a press conference intended to provide an update on the investigation, the exhausted chief went off script, delivering a sermon to a broken America.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” he said. “We are. You’re asking us to do too much.”
He went on to address all the “societal failures” police officers are called to solve from mental health to drug treatment, from poor public schools to bad parenting. Exasperated, the chief continued, “Here in Dallas, we’ve got a loose dog problem. The response to that has been like the response to every ailment that plagues the city: Let the cops handle it.”
He humanized police officers as critics of law enforcement were growing in number and gaining momentum, pinning every officer as a corrupt oppressor and occupier. He spoke about police in a demeanor that was not threatening but actually made sense from a place of resounding pain and frustration. He was the face of the reformer.
Brown represented the good cops and became the principled politician – everyone’s friend. He even sang for his fallen comrades at their memorial. “Until the rainbow burns the stars out of the sky, I’ll be loving you,” he recited, words from a Stevie Wonder song. “Until the ocean covers every mountain high, I’ll be loving you.” This man, who could not escape tragedy in his personal life, would become the police chief of a nation.
Dallas is Brown’s hometown and the hometown of his parents, who were born in the basement of old Parkland Hospital because that was the maternity ward for black babies in the 1930s and 40s. Brown was born in 1960, and grew up in a south Dallas suburb called Oak Cliff. Crime was high in the area, but Brown describes his neighborhood with a fondness that belies its high crime rates. He only remembers the trees and hills of the community, and the hardworking folks.
David Brown interned for a lawyer as a teenager, which incited his interest in criminology. He was voted “Most Intellectual” and “Most Likely to Succeed” as a senior at South Oak Cliff High School. Upon graduation, he went down to Austin to attend the University of Texas. Before earning his degree, he dropped out of college in 1983 to support his pregnant wife. There was an additional factor that brought the chief home and ended his college campaign; his beloved Oak Cliff suburbia was falling apart as drugs owned the streets, and violence followed.
“It was my little secret with me and my neighborhood, that I was going to change the world, as a naive 21 year old,” Brown told the Dallas NBC affiliate.
Brown joined the police force, and three tragedies would dominate his life while working his way up to top cop.
The first occurred in 1988 when dispatch called Brown to an officer-involved shooting. When he arrived, he learned that the fallen officer was his partner, Walter Williams, who had been ambushed and shot in the forehead while responding to a domestic violence call.
“He passed away, and I’m in the room,” he said to NBC. “He’s gone. I want to quit. I was so hurt. I was very emotional, and it wasn’t going to be fun anymore without Walter. And I was looking for jobs.”
Brown was already a serious fellow, but he became more deliberate and determined after his partner’s death, as he maintained his badge and continued to fight crime. Three years later, a second major tragedy broke him even more. This time it was even closer to home.
Brown knew his brother had a drug problem, but distanced from the circumstances, and convinced himself that his he would someday get it together. “We stayed hopeful that our love would make it okay,” he told Texas Monthly, “that prayer for him would make it okay.”
Sadly, his family’s love and prayers could not save his brother, who’d become consumed by the ravages of drugs, and was eventually killed by a crack dealer in Arizona after a bad drug deal led to an altercation.
You don’t ever get over the loss of a loved one,” Brown wrote in his just released book Called to Rise.
“In your sadness, you just keep getting up every day, breathing your way from one moment to the next.”
Soon after his brother’s death, Brown joined Dallas SWAT, working on the team for seven years before moving to a community policing unit where he truly learned the value of police officer and community relationships.
“I love the fact that you can come in and change the dynamics on a street by the way you police it,” he said to NBC.
In May 2010, he became the Dallas Chief of Police. Almost immediately after, the third and perhaps most excruciating tragedy struck. On Father’s Day of that year, his son D.J., high on PCP, and suffering from a Bipolar attack, shot at a passing car in his apartment complex without motive. The three bullets hit the driver in the head and neck, fatally wounding him. D.J. went back to his apartment, found a rifle, and was attempting to leave the scene when a police officer approached him. Brown’s son shot the officer in the head, killing him. Minutes later, several more officers arrived and opened fire on D.J., shooting at him until he fell dead.
“You’re in this fog,” he told NBC after the event that took his son. “You’re functional, of course. But at the same time, you’re not aware. It’s beyond heartbreaking…It’s like a hole in your heart that doesn’t close. Time doesn’t help it.”
Recently, he talked to Time magazine about DJ, “It gave me the deepest empathy for people who suffer and families with people they love who have mental illness. You name shooting after shooting where we’ve had multiple people killed, and those suspects have a mental illness. And yet, unless you are affluent, there’s no capacity to deal with the mentally ill.”
Brown took some time off to grieve before returning to duty.
When he returned, it was with renewed purpose. Throughout his career as a big city chief, Brown stretched his men to keep crime down. He maintained high expectations for them, holding them accountable for misconduct. He fired numerous officers and sent their cases to the district attorney for possible prosecution.
The community trusted Brown, but morale was low on the force. Officers left for higher pay and lower risk in area suburbs, and every local police union stood together against him, calling for him to resign that summer before the attacks on his officers.
The morning after the dust cleared on that awful day in July, the straight-laced officer stood stoic at a press conference. In full uniform, gazing through his trademark black rimmed glasses, he remarked, “We’re hurting. All I know is this must stop, this divisiveness between our police and our citizens.”
Several days later, he called upon the loudest detractors of the police to step up and serve their communities, saying, “We’re hiring. Get off the protest line and put an application in. We’ll put you in your neighborhood, and we’ll help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”
The Chief of Police of Norman, Oklahoma, Keith Humphrey, told the Washington Post that some people would shut down and have others do the press conferences and interviews, but that is not Brown’s style. He realized the community and nation wanted to hear from him.
“He is setting an example for chiefs all over the nation of what resilience is and how to help your officers get through those tragedies,” Humphries said. “He’s a true leader.”
Brown retired from his post a few months later. He’d been considering this move before the attack, feeling he may be fired anyway. But with public opinion now in his favor, and momentarily basking in praise, he decided it would be best to go out on top, before the pendulum swung back against him.
“Have you ever been in a relationship where you love someone and they don’t love you back?” he asked a writer for Texas Monthly. “That’s how you feel in this profession…they finally love me back.”
At a Random House event, Brown was asked why he wrote his book, and he replied:
“I wanted to convey…that there is hope, that there is purpose and meaning to all of our lives, and what it takes…it’s a life experience to serve others, with no expectations that you will receive anything in return, and your reward will be that service, and you will be surprised at the significant change you can affect. And that even through our tragic moments and our darkest days, we can make it to the next breath and next step…”
American Snippets wishes Brown a peaceful retirement, and much success with his book.
If you’d like to support him and read his exceptional story, visit https://www.amazon.com/Called-Rise-Faithful-Service-Community/dp/1524796549/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1498155622&sr=1-1&keywords=called+to+rise+david+brown
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