He was hurting, self-effacing and, as he put it, a little fried. At a news conference Monday, he spoke about the crisis facing law enforcement, his experience as a black man in Texas, guns and division, and what kept him going – “God’s grace and his sweet, tender mercies, just to be quite honest with you.”
The day before President Barack Obama was scheduled to arrive, David O. Brown, Dallas’ African-American police chief, was putting a human face, tinged with humor and pathos, on the exhaustion and torment fueling this precarious American moment.
Four days earlier, a black man, intent on killing white officers, fatally shot five police officers in downtown Dallas while the nation was reeling from the deaths of two black men at the hands of the police in Louisiana and Minnesota.
Asked how to bridge the gap between the two brotherhoods — black and blue — he belongs to, Brown said: “I’ve been black a long time, so it’s not much of a bridge for me,” his delivery as deadpan as a police report of a stolen bike.
To protesters in the streets, he suggested channeling frustration into public service: “We’re hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in. And we'll put you in your neighborhood, and we will help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”
Of the impossible demands on American police officers, he said: “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well.
“Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Lee P. Brown, a former mayor of Houston who was also the city’s first African-American police chief, said the shooting has forced David Brown to find a way to appeal to an array of constituencies.
“First and foremost, he has to represent his police agency and represent the city of Dallas,” Lee Brown, who is no relation, said. “And in many ways he’s representing American law enforcement.”
In truth, David Brown’s whole career, from the reasons he got into policing to the cross-currents that have buffeted his tenure, reflects just how much pressure the police are under.
David Brown, 55, is one of 20 black police chiefs among the 68 who are members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association — a number that is “probably as high as it’s ever been,” said Darrel W. Stephens, the executive director of the group.
During Monday’s news conference, in which he offered new details about the attack, David Brown commended the success of the “community policing” model that he favors and that has given him a national reputation as a reformer focused on defusing tensions between police and minorities.
He said 2015 was “the 12th consecutive year of crime reduction” in Dallas, with the city’s fourth-lowest murder rate since 1930.
This year, however, crime has been on the rise, and David Brown has been battered by local critics. The Black Police Association of Greater Dallas has called for his resignation, and the Dallas Police Association, which represents many of the city’s police officers, declared that his department was adrift. News outlets reported in March that the groups had been upset about the chief’s plans to put a large number of officers on overnight shifts to curb rising crime.
Some civilian critics, meanwhile, see him as a man intent on protecting officers and burnishing his own reputation, even if it threatens prospects for improving the relationship between the police and minorities.
“As an African-American chief of police, he’s always been in the role of reaffirming himself. Now, in the wake of this tragedy, he’s doubling down on that,” said C.D. Kirven, an activist in Dallas who witnessed Thursday’s attack. “As a result of doubling down, vulnerable communities, you’re putting them more in danger.”
Lee Brown said the chief’s public appearances since Thursday night had most likely reassured Dallas residents.
“If you’re up there panicking, that creates a different atmosphere for the city,” he said. “The fact that he was calm helps the city remain calm.”
David Brown’s shaved head and thick-rimmed glasses suggest rigor and precision — and perhaps a carefully cultivated public image. He was not always known for being voluble. In 2010, the year he became chief, The Dallas Morning News described him in a profile as “a private man in a most public job.” In the article, a friend said David Brown had once described himself as a “loner.”
But in the Police Department here, and long before he ran it, David Brown earned a reputation as an officer who was not afraid to boldly criticize conventional wisdom and policing tactics. In meetings where “everyone else was kind of afraid to comment,” a former chief recounted Monday, David Brown had been outspoken.
“He’s willing to challenge the status quo in a big way,” said David Kunkle, the former chief.
But from the beginning of his tenure as chief, his private life has seemed fated to mesh with his public role. Shortly after he became chief, his son shot and killed a police officer and another man before being killed in a confrontation with the police.
“My family has not only lost a son, but a fellow police officer and a private citizen lost their lives at the hands of our son,” he said in a statement at the time. “That hurts so deeply I cannot adequately express the sadness I feel inside my heart.”
On Monday, David Brown spoke of the way another tragedy, the crack epidemic, had influenced his decision to become an officer.
“So when I was graduating high school, I got a full-ride scholarship to UT Austin,” he said. “And this was 1979. I come back home for the summers. Around ‘80, ‘81, ‘82, that time frame, the crack cocaine epidemic hit Dallas pretty hard.
“My friends who stayed here became involved in that, and it broke my heart. And it changed what I wanted to do in college. And I actually left college my first semester of my senior year to come back and apply for the Dallas Police Department to do something about what I was seeing in my neighborhood.”
Today, he is steering the department through one of the most challenging crises in its history. He admitted that it has not been easy and that he and his family had received death threats after the shooting. He lamented the low starting salaries of his officers, said he was worried about their mental health and said he was “at the point” of mandating counseling — “because we want to be superman and superwoman, and we’re not, and we are the last to say we need help.”
In the meantime, he said, he is trying to offer some succor to all that he can.
“I’m trying tell them that I care about them when I see them face to face,” he said. “It’s a big department. It’s hard to touch everybody at one time. So you won’t see me walking past an officer without grabbing him and hugging him and shaking their hand and telling how grateful I am for their commitment and sacrifice.”
And if the divide can seem daunting, he said there’s hope in the long view of where Dallas has been and where it is now.
“I grew up here in Texas,” he said. “I’m third-generation Dallasite. It’s my normal to live in a society that had a long history of racial strife. We’re in a much better place than we were when I was a young man here, but we have much work to do, particularly in our profession. And leaders in my position need to put their careers on the line to make sure we do things right and not be so worried about keeping their job. That’s how I approach it.”