David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2017 | 15 minutes (3,755 words)

David Brown was a few months into his tenure as the head of the Dallas Police Department when his cell phone started to hum on a Sunday morning.

He’d been on the job long enough to know the drill: At any given moment, a phone call could be the harbinger of an administrative headache, a tactical crisis, or some gut-wrenching tragedy. But he resisted the reflexive urge to answer.

Brown was standing in a pew at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church. A low-slung building with a sharply pitched roof, the church and its weekly service was his temporary refuge from a chaotic world. He actually considered turning away from his faith once, when he was a younger man and inconsolable over the murder of a former partner, a blow that nearly drove him to quit the police force altogether.

But Brown came to understand loss, the way it coursed through and connected everyone around him like an unseen river. Such lessons had been present in his life from an early age. Brown was born at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1960, three years before a team of trauma doctors there tried in vain to revive President John F. Kennedy after an assassin’s bullet had exploded through his skull. The very place that had given Brown life became synonymous with the death of a country’s tenuous sense of innocence.

He checked his phone when he left the Sunday service. It was hot outside; the temperature would touch 100 degrees that day. A voice message from the chief of a small-town police department 16 miles outside of Dallas was waiting. It was about Brown’s 27-year-old son, D.J., who suffered from adult-onset bipolar disorder.

D.J.’s behavior had turned erratic that morning, prompting his girlfriend to call 911. But everything was fine now, the chief calmly assured Brown. He tried to get in touch with D.J., but thought better of rushing to him; maybe his son just needed some time to cool down. A few hours later, Brown’s phone started rattling again. This time, it was a no-nonsense detective who took his breath away with just a few words: D.J. was dead.

He’d shot and killed an innocent passerby and a local police officer, the detective explained, and then engaged in a shootout with other cops. D.J. was cut down by police gunfire. The news hit Brown like a sledgehammer to the spine.

It was June 20, 2010. Father’s Day.

The grief could have broken a lesser man, could have swallowed him whole. But Brown clung to his faith, and he somehow endured. What he didn’t know then was that more sorrow was waiting for him down the road, the kind that would draw the world’s attention to Dallas like it was 1963 all over again. And Brown, a quiet, contemplative man who never imagined he’d be a police chief, would emerge from all of the darkness as the embodiment of grace—and the unlikely face of law enforcement in America.

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There’s a risk to police work that goes beyond the life-or-death stuff: Do it long enough, and your heart can turn to stone. Faced with an endless series of crime scenes and stories about people doing unspeakable things to one another, some cops find their compassion gives way to indifference. Brown could never allow himself to become so detached.

He grew up in working class Oak Cliff, an experience he recalls in his memoir, Called To Rise, with Wonder Years-like nostalgia—just punctuated with a soundtrack that was more Al Green than Joe Cocker. His mother, Norma Jean, provided religious values that gave him a due-north sense of right and wrong.  “I just never forgot how I grew up, where I was raised,” Brown, 57, tells me on a mild afternoon in New York City in early May. “I had a constant reminder of people’s humanity. I never got so tough-minded that I didn’t see that [a victim] could be me, that could be my child, my relative. That kept me grounded.”

The book shows him wrestling with the racial tension of the era, trying to reconcile the anguish his father, Walter, carried from being treated as inferior in a segregated world with the surprising friendship Brown formed with a white student in a predominately white middle school.

Brown felt an unexpected urge to become a police officer when he visited Oak Cliff while on summer break from the University of Texas at Austin in 1982, and found his old neighborhood all but unrecognizable. Like countless other urban areas across the country, it had fallen victim to the crack epidemic. The streets where Brown once played as a child now felt unnervingly ominous; the familiar shops and neighbors were replaced by drug turf battles and the staccato sound of gunfire.

He dropped out of college, joined the Dallas PD, and  set out to save his corner of the universe—one arrest at a time. “I was very much a put them all in jail and let God sort them out kind of person,” he says in a soft voice that only offers a hint of Texas. “My knee-jerk reaction as a 22-year-old was, ‘Someone who is violent in the neighborhood I grew up in needs to be held accountable, to keep my mother safe. If they’re in jail, they can’t hurt anybody.’”

The War on Drugs was at its height in those days; Brown’s attitude merely reflected the we-can-arrest-our-way-out-of-this ethos that was promoted by federal, state and local authorities. But those tactics succeeded only in giving the United States the highest prison population in the world. The war was never won.

Brown now wonders if he could’ve done more good wielding a clipboard and a pen as a drug counselor instead of wearing a badge and gun. He winces when I mention the stance the Justice Department has adopted so far under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who would soon revoke a policy that instructed prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

“Trying to strong-arm addicted people into sobriety by arresting them doesn’t work. We know that through data and research,” Brown says. “If you listen to what the research says, even if you start out thinking one way, you’ll end up in the right place. I’m hoping that’s what happens to this administration.”

People’s perspectives can change, Brown insists. He believes this with an almost religious fervor, because he’s seen it happen before—starting with himself.

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Brown in 2010. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The assignment didn’t seem like it made a damn bit of sense. After working his way up through the ranks and flourishing in the adrenaline-fueled SWAT Unit, Brown was given a new beat by his bosses in the late 1990s: supervising a small police substation that was tasked with community policing in West Dallas.

On the surface, it sounded like the opposite of policing: organizing neighborhood gatherings, chatting up the locals, treating minor complaints with the same seriousness as a panicked 911 call. “I resisted it,” Brown admits. But it was crucial work, meant to build stronger relationships between cops and residents who harbored a distrust of anyone in a uniform. That was something Brown understood all too well; in his memoir, he writes that friends called him an “Uncle Tom” for joining the police force, while his father expressed outright dismay over the idea.

And he could sympathize deeply with those who had lost loved ones to the twin scourges of drugs and gun violence. Brown’s younger brother, Kelvin, battled addiction problems before he was fatally shot by a drug dealer in 1991. Three years earlier, Brown’s former partner and closest friend in the department, Officer Walter Williams, was shot in the head and killed when he responded to a domestic violence call.

The twin tragedies devastated Brown, but they also humanized him in a visceral way when he was trying to win the trust of city residents who might have been otherwise reluctant to share information that could help solve crimes. He hurt just like they did, and he wanted the same thing they did, too—to see their neighborhood become safer.

Brown gradually came to embrace community policing. An effective cop, he realized, could be a collaborator, not just a cowboy. Pastor Lynn Godsey, the president of the Dallas-based Hispanic Evangelical Ministerial Alliance, was among dozens of civic, business and religious leaders whom Brown invited in 2014 to join the Dallas Police Community Support Coalition, a collection of committees that crafted suggested policy changes for the department.

“The first meeting we had, I saw a little cross section of what Dallas looked like: Asians, Indians, African-Americans, women, men, all working together,” Godsey tells me. He’d worked in the past with other police chiefs who didn’t seem particularly interested in hearing the problems or perspectives of the Latino community he represented. “[Brown] was very genuine, very open. He let us speak our hearts and minds. I don’t know if that happened in any other large cities.”

Brown called upon more goodwill gestures like that after then-City Manager Mary Suhm appointed him the city’s police chief in April 2010. (A self-described apolitical figure, he had convinced himself the position was going to be awarded to one of his peers.) When a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man during a violent struggle in Dallas’s Dixon Circle neighborhood in 2012, Brown fast-tracked the investigation and released information in real time, a surprising reversal of the usual slow, deliberate and secretive process that big city departments usually follow in the wake of police shootings.

That approach—honest, matter-of-fact—likely prevented the neighborhood’s outrage over the shooting from mushrooming into a riot. “I thought the information belonged to the public, and we were just caretakers,” he tells me. “My strongest argument for releasing it sooner rather than later is that if your officer did something wrong, people should know, rather than you hiding it—and then it becomes a conspiracy problem.”

Here again, Brown could relate to the soul-crushing sadness of losing a loved one—and to a police shooting, no less. When the Dixon Circle incident unfolded, he was only two years removed from having buried D.J., the son whose “tiny body nearly fit in my cupped palms” after he was born in 1983, Brown writes in the memoir.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who was elected in 2011, was left awestruck by the way Brown soldiered through his son’s death, and by the kindness and empathy he showed to the families of Lancaster Officer Craig Shaw and Jeremy McMillan, the men D.J. shot and killed. (D.J. was found to have had marijuana laced with PCP in his system on the day he died.) “He’s a much better man than I am,” Rawlings tells me. “If that happened to me, you’d find me in a closet someplace. But he just got back on his horse and did his job, and he never missed a beat. I gave him the benefit of the doubt on most everything.”

Brown is sitting in a small conference room on the 11th floor of Random House Tower, his book publisher’s shimmering Midtown Manhattan headquarters, when I broach this topic. He’s 1,500 miles away from Dallas, but his grief for D.J. is ever-present. “I haven’t talked about it that much, other than with my wife and close family,” he says, peering at me through black-rimmed glasses. “It’s the most unnatural thing, to bury a child.”

People ask him about it sometimes, what it was like living through every parent’s worst fear. “It’s hard to describe the pain,” Brown says. “Distance and time doesn’t help. Without my faith, man, I don’t know how I could’ve gotten through it, and still be able to discuss it without losing my emotions. I’m held together mostly by my faith.”

Another tragedy would soon threaten to tear apart the fragile patchwork that held Brown together after he lost his son.

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(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Most police chiefs don’t last very long—a couple of years, maybe slightly more. The ambitious ones try to do more than just survive; they attempt to leave a mark, to push their departments forward in some tangible way.

Brown doubled down on his department’s use of community policing strategies, incorporated tools that were successful in other big cities—like sticking surveillance cameras in dangerous hot spots—and embraced social media at a time when many departments were still skeptical of the practice. He also drew a hard line on thorny issues like police corruption and racial profiling. The city’s crime rate tumbled under his watch; in 2014, Dallas recorded 116 homicides, the fewest in nearly 75 years.

But that’s not to say he was universally loved. “We had a very bad relationship with our chief,” sighs Ron Pinkston, the former head of the Dallas Police Association, before launching into a list of gripes. He claims Brown wasn’t nearly as transparent as he portrayed himself to be, and cracked down on ethics problems only when it was beneficial to him. Cops have fled the Dallas Police Department in droves because of a deepening pension crisis, but Pinkston argues Brown repelled some with managerial tactics that seemed a little, well, soft. “You have to give citizens the customer service they deserve,” he says. “Chief Brown had officers out there carrying iPads. He took them away from crime-fighting and had them tweeting. I mean, c’mon.”

He also faced criticism from organizations like the Next Generation Action Network, a nonprofit coalition that fights for civil rights. Minister Dominique Alexander, the network’s founder, suggests Brown was more interested in “political things that looked good” on his terms—like inviting residents to meet with cops at coffee shops or attend PR-minded events downtown—rather than digging deeper into neighborhoods where violent crime was at its worst, and people still viewed police with fear and animosity.  “He had a few different policies that might’ve been more transparent about officer-involved shootings,” Alexander says, “but there wasn’t respect for his leadership on the streets.”  

In 2015, the police association and the local and national arms of the Fraternal Order of Police pushed for Brown’s ouster. So, too, did Alexander. Their cries grew louder when the city’s murder rate started to soar the following year, and Brown began unilaterally changing cops’ shifts in a bid to quell the bloodshed. “The unions were very strong, very influential, very mean-spirited and retaliatory,” Brown tells me. “I did some things that made them angry, like holding officers accountable who were very popular union people. You have to hold your own and try to do the right thing, and not get lost in the muck.”

Rawlings says he never considered removing Brown. “He wasn’t a warm and fuzzy guy, but none of their [complaints] were well-founded. I backed him completely, and it was one of the best decisions I made as mayor.”

The critiques would soon seem quaint. The changing nature of the threats law enforcement were forced to confront was a constant worry. Large scale terrorist attacks like 9/11 had reverberations even in Dallas; the police department and federal investigators thwarted a Jordanian man’s plot to blow up the Fountain Place skyscraper in downtown Dallas in 2009. In 2015, a mentally ill 35-year-old man named James Boulware planted pipe bombs near police headquarters and began firing on the building with an automatic weapon from inside an armored vehicle, triggering a chase and lengthy standoff that ended with Boulware being shot dead.

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And then came July 7, 2016. Tensions between minority communities and police across the country were at a fever pitch after the fatal, videotaped police shootings of two black men: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The Next Generation Action Network organized a protest in downtown Dallas that night that attracted hundreds and grew into a march. Images popped up on social media of Dallas cops and demonstrators smiling for pictures together, the embodiment of Brown’s belief in the value of strong relationships.

Sprinkled among the marchers were around 20 people who wore ballistic vests and carried AR-15s. Texas is an open carry state—“You can’t legislate common sense,” Brown says—but the armed attendees posed no trouble. The march was uneventful; Brown and other police officials breathed a sigh of relief when it started to wind down shortly before 9 p.m. Then came madness and death.

Micah Xavier Johnson was a 25-year-old Army reservist from a Dallas suburb. He’d been furious over the deaths of black men across the country at the hands of law enforcement, and became hellbent on exacting revenge; investigators would later find bomb-making materials, rifles and a journal filled with combat techniques in his home. He drove to the march in Dallas and moved into position. No one saw him coming. Armed with a Saiga AK-74 semi-automatic rifle, Johnson moved with an assassin’s cold precision, taking down one cop after another as the city plunged into a panic. His gunshots echoed like thunder off the buildings downtown, creating the impression that multiple shooters were unleashing holy hell—Michael Mann’s Heat come to life.

Photos of the fallen Dallas Policemen, (L – R) Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and Patrick. Zamarripa (Photo by Gary Miller/WireImage)
Photos of the fallen Dallas Policemen, (L – R) Michael Krol, Brent Thompson, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith and Patrick. Zamarripa (Photo by Gary Miller/WireImage)

Five were killed: Sgt. Michael Smith, Senior Cpl. Lorne Aherns, Officers Michael Krol and Patricio Zamarripa, and DART Officer Brent Thompson. Seven other police officers were wounded, along with two civilians. Night turned into early morning. Johnson became barricaded at the end of a hallway in El Centro College, where he taunted exhausted SWAT cops who were wary of trying to charge towards him. He claimed he had bombs planted around Dallas. “I want to kill white cops,” he declared. “I want them to pay in blood.”

It was a goddamn nightmare. Brown ultimately decided to end the standoff in a way no police department ever had before: he ordered his cops to plant a pound of C4 on a small, tactical robot, and detonate it once it reached Johnson. The move took Rawlings by surprise, but Brown didn’t waver. Johnson was left charred and lifeless, and no other officers were injured.

Brown made multiple appearances on TV while the crisis unfolded. He was calm and collected, taking repetitive questions from reporters and only occasionally looking stunned by what had transpired. He ached for the fallen officers’ families, and fretted about how his cops were going to respond to such a brazen attack. “Human nature tells me that people want to retaliate,” he says. “My biggest worry was that our officers would act unprofessionally, based on their human response to having to bury five of their fellow officers. A lot of cops already feel like it’s ‘us against them.’”

So Brown tried to pass a simple message along to every cop he encountered in the hours and days that followed: I know you’re hurting. Don’t let anything divide us. Stay professional. Pray. To protestors who had been out there that night, he issued an unexpected call: join us if you want to fix what’s ailing society. “That was me in my rawest moment,” he tells me. “I was doing and saying things based on how I felt. It just landed in the right place, right where it needed to be, after 33 years.”

The city and the police department endured, just like its chief. Brown’s firm, reassuring response to the attack earned him nationwide praise; for every story about the ambush itself, there seemed to be another about Brown. “People Are Begging The Dallas Police Chief To Run For President Right Now” gushed one headline from The Daily Caller, while the New York Times declared: “Dallas Police Chief David Brown, a Reformer, Becomes Face of Nation’s Shock.” Even his opponents had to begrudgingly tip their caps. “After the shooting, he said the right things,” Pinkston says. “We were proud of what he said during those moments. We’d just been waiting for that chief for five and a half years.”

Mitch Paradise, a real estate developer and the former chairman of the Friends of Dallas Police, a local nonprofit, believes Brown single-handedly saved the area from tearing itself apart. “Our city could’ve easily fallen into turmoil. The tension was so high. But the leadership he showed didn’t allow that to happen. It was our version of 9/11. Everyone stopped and unified.”

Brown believes the losses he endured earlier in life—his son, his brother, his former partner—all prepared him in some way to shoulder the weight of the Dallas attack. It is a realization, he says, that only came to him well after the fact. “At the time, when you’re going through those things, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Two months later, he abruptly announced he planned to retire in late October. Rawlings was taken by surprise; he knew Brown was worn out from all of the political headwinds he’d weathered as chief, but figured his tenure would last at least until the end of 2016 given all of the goodwill he’d created. Brown offers a different read. “I was, for the first time, uncomfortable in my own skin, if that makes sense,” he says. “I don’t like personal praise. I know how flawed I am. So the idea of having a halo and being an untouchable national rock star, it made me uncomfortable.” Deep down, he also knew it wasn’t sustainable. How long would it be before this newfound aura faded, and his critics went back to calling for his job?

Brown had spent six years as police chief, the longest of any Dallas chief since the 1940s. “Most are run out of town,” he says with a knowing smile. “I’d been the most effective I could be. It’s not healthy to stay just because you’re getting accolades.” And so he transitioned to civilian life, which so far includes serving as an analyst for ABC News, and doing community work with the Dallas Mavericks. He’s also working with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas, tackling an issue that has been the connective tissue in so many of the tragedies he’s encountered.

He’s dressed on this afternoon in a white dress shirt and striped tie—his uniform for what will be a quick taped segment at ABC later in the day. Sunlight trickles into the conference room, and Brown looks, for a moment, like a man who is at peace with himself, who’s grateful to have survived so many grueling tests without having lost himself along the way. But there’s a sense of yearning that still gnaws away his core. “I feel like I owe people something,” he says. “You feel like if you’re not giving back, your life is not worthwhile.”

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David Gambacorta is a writer-at-large at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, The Baffler and Philadelphia Magazine.

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Editor: Mike Dang; Fact-checker: Michael Fitzgerald