How Police Chief David Brown's whole life prepared him for the Dallas shootings
In a career filled with tests, the deadly attack on Brown's officers has been among the most difficult for him
By Naomi Martin
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — In a Parkland Hospital hall, David Brown put his arms around a man who had just lost his son-in-law, a Dallas cop.
"Thank you for letting us share Patrick," the police chief said.
Brown was talking about Patrick Zamarripa, one of five officers shot dead Thursday night.
"We're going to get the individuals who did this," he said.
For his six years as Dallas chief, Brown had been praying he would never have to comfort the family member of a newly deceased cop. He felt responsible for his troops, once describing what this day, if it ever came, would be like: "The worst day in a chief's life." But here it was, the worst day times five.
Meanwhile, in a garage a few miles away, a robot was about to blow up the gunman, on Brown's orders. Yet Brown remained calm, though his face was heavy with loss and responsibility. Through it all, he handled the pain and chaos in his usual way -- with focus, a steely resolve, and no surprises.
In a career filled with tests, the deadly attack on Brown's officers has been among the most difficult for him, and surely the most agonizingly public.
It's hard to imagine anyone embodying the complexity of modern policing more perfectly than the Dallas police chief. If you were to stage the ongoing national drama about cops and black Americans, every role could be played by David Brown.
He's a black man who grew up in a poor neighborhood. He's also a cop. His job, on Thursday, called on him to protect marchers who were protesting black Americans' treatment at the hands of cops.
That's just the beginning of his almost unimaginably complicated story. Brown's former patrol partner was killed in the line of duty. His brother was killed by drug dealers in Phoenix.
During Brown's first few weeks as Dallas' chief, his mentally ill 27-year-old son killed a bystander and a cop, and then was killed by cops. On Father's Day.
The chief carries the burdens of this history with intense stoicism. He has a reputation for jealously keeping his own counsel, to the point where he calls himself a loner. Whatever he is thinking is secreted behind his wary eyes, which in turn are guarded by thick black glasses.
In some ways, Brown is ideally positioned for his job. As America boils with racial tensions and anger at police practices, it falls to Brown to help bridge the gap between the city's cops and its black community.
"The way we heal in the United States is one block, one neighborhood, one city at a time," Mayor Mike Rawlings said Saturday. "All he can do is his piece of that. When people hear him talk -- not in an eloquent and flowery manner, but in a straightforward manner -- people understand it and they get it."
Throughout Brown's tenure, he has had to balance defending his troops with reforming the way they work. His push for more progressive policing has endeared him to the community, but often not his own officers. Police associations have criticized some of his changes as unnecessarily limiting. They say his management style is authoritative, retaliatory and dirtied with favoritism. Brown says they're just angry that he punishes officers when they screw up.
A year ago, the department got lucky -- Brown says blessed -- that no officers were hurt when a gunman in an apocalypse-ready armored van attacked police headquarters with assault rifles and bombs.
Faith, family and his love for his hometown are what drive Brown, say those close to him. He stresses the importance of family time.
He's married to former police Sgt. Cedonia Brown, and they have a 10-year-old daughter.
Brown believes in bedrock Christian doctrine -- faithful submission to God's plan followed by an eternal reward. He sees his job as a "divine assignment" and brings a Biblical perspective to all his decision-making, said his pastor, the Rev. Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship.
Brown doesn't compartmentalize his personal life and his professional life -- he brings the same awareness of God to both, Evans said.
And he's been able to keep leading the department despite his son's death, through repeated calls for his ouster from his own officers, and now, this ambush. Evans said that's because Brown has a "faith comfort level" that God has a reason for making things happen -- even horrific things.
"There are innocent people who suffer for the wrong that people do," Evans said. "How God calculates that, I don't know. All I do know is that nothing happens by chance."
Brown sees himself as a representative of good fighting evil, Evans said. That's what keeps him grounded during tragedies and crises.
Between visits with families at Parkland's emergency room, Brown paused at a nurse's station in an open area surrounded by patient rooms. Rawlings, dozens of officers, family members, nurses and doctors gathered around.
Brown said he'd just received word that the gunman had been killed by the police bomb.
"No one's going to tear us apart," he said, according to Rawlings. "We're going to hold together and we're going be strong. If you are like me, please pray for us. It will help us come together."
For Brown, being "a third-generation Dallasite" is a matter of pride. He was the first Dallas native to become chief in nearly four decades.
He grew up in South Oak Cliff, a largely black, low-income neighborhood where he saw crime explode amid the crack cocaine epidemic. He heard complaints about racist police practices and and knew they went back generations.
His mother, the first black bank manager in Dallas, gave him strength, discipline and the inspiration to always get better. She met Brown's father at age 12, dated him through high school and remained with him until he died of lung disease in 1999. If you call Brown on a Sunday, there's a good chance he'll be with his mom.
"I started out as an accounting major, so she gave me some genes as it relates to numbers," said Brown, who often ticks off statistics and research figures.
He has always been driven. At South Oak Cliff High School, he was voted most intellectual and most likely to succeed.
In 1983, Brown, sporting an Afro, joined the police department. He wanted to fight crime in his neighborhood, and was excited when he was assigned to patrol the area.
"I grew up in a hot spot and wanted to do something about it, not just complain about it," Brown said last year.
As an African-American cop, Brown sees himself as both black and blue, not one or the other. Improving relations between police and the community has been a cornerstone of his tenure. He holds regular Chief on the Beat events to meet people and sends his officers out for Coffee With Cops throughout the city. He's talked about the need for police departments to show that the police care about community concerns.
"This is what 21st century policing needs to look like," Brown said while talking to morning commuters on a DART train last year.
In 2012, riots almost broke out when a white officer shot an unarmed black man after a foot chase at Dixon Circle.
That shooting, which happened two years before Ferguson, spurred Brown to make changes that could reduce officer-involved shootings. He wanted to avoid, as much as possible, putting them in situations where they needed to use deadly force to protect their lives.
Brown put restrictions on when officers could chase suspects, allowing it only in the most serious instances.
He also ordered improvements to reality-based training at the academy, and doubled the required number of hours for all patrol cops.
The training involves officers acting as combative suspects, with trainees encouraged to talk first if they can, then use Tasers before resorting to a gun.
And the department posted data about its police-involved shootings on its website, a progressive step.
"Everything that's talked about at the highest police circles is not always implemented," said Assistant Chief Randy Blankenbaker.
"The fact that he was willing to do that shows he has a lot of confidence in the science and the research."
Brown has credited the revamped training with a 30 percent decline in assaults on officers and a 40 percent drop in shootings by police last year. Excessive-force complaints fell by about 80 percent between 2009 and 2015.
Many of his officers, though, say they're now hamstrung in trying to catch criminals. They fear getting in trouble for violating policies that don't make sense.
To Brown, avoiding potentially deadly confrontations is worth it.
"Who wants to be Baltimore?" he said. "Who wants to be in a city that has property burned down because people don't feel they're being treated fairly by the police?"
The officer complaints escalated twice in the past year, with some calling for Brown's ouster. But he held on to the job, with the support of the mayor, the city manager and many in the community.
Standing before hundreds at a square in downtown Dallas on Friday, Brown removed his sunglasses briefly to wipe tears. His eyes, so rarely seen without glasses, were puffy from crying and lack of sleep. He didn't smile.
"This was a well-planned, well thought-out, evil tragedy," Brown said. "We are determined to not let this person steal this democracy from us."
He thanked the community for appreciating officers -- appreciation they're not used to. He vowed to do the officers justice and hold anyone involved in the ambush to account.
He stood near the podium as a minister preached. Brown closed his eyes and bowed his head, nodding.
"Let us place our trust in God," the pastor bellowed.
Eyes closed, Brown turned his face toward the heavens.
Then he headed back to work.
Copyright 2016 The Dallas Morning News