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Can David Brown Survive As The Dallas Chief of Police Despite Being The Father Of A Cop Killer?

Dallas Police Chief David Brown can come back from leave and go to work. Or he can come back and go postal.
Associated Press

Everybody is on such pins and needles, walking on eggshells at City Hall about the police chief thing. You know they've gone over to the weird side when they appoint a special funeral procession prosecutor.

City Hall has handed off the controversy over the cortege for Police Chief David Brown's son to the same lawyer who was hired to investigate the city's "fake drugs" scandal in 2004. It's nuts.

So please allow me to play my own part. If everyone else is being super-decorous, considerate, dignified and self-composed about it, then surely it's time for me to be embarrassing. Hey. I live to serve.

Ever since the triple tragedy in which Chief Brown's PCP-addled son shot a stranger and a police officer, then was shot to death himself by police, the blogs and the daily paper have been rattling on about whether the newly appointed police chief can ever come back from leave and inspire morale in his troops.

Two things: Who says the chief's big challenge at the moment is inspiring morale? And who says leadership is about being loved?

I've been talking all week to people who know the Dallas Police Department well and know this situation well. They spoke to me off the record because they were being decorous and dignified and knew I wouldn't be. Somebody's got to be embarrassing.

I picked up a big consensus out there: Warm fuzziness may not be at all what this department especially needs right now. A certain amount of warm fuzziness never hurts, but this department also needs some ass-kicking.

We still have a lot of spoiled-brat arrogance and lousy work ethic and whining going on, left over from the bad old days before David Kunkle became chief in 2004. And nothing illustrates this more clearly than the strident calls for heads to roll over the damn funeral procession thing.

An assistant chief and a deputy chief who were riding in the procession for the chief's son ordered Dallas motorcycle police to provide traffic control. Maybe it was a bad call. It was a funeral for a cop-killer.

But here's the problem. It was also the funeral of the son of the newly appointed chief of police. Life gets complicated.

Now Terence Hart, a former federal prosecutor in the city's massive real-estate scandals of the 1980s and one of two lawyers who helped straighten out the fake-drugs scandal, has been appointed to investigate the matter of who ordered whom to do what for the procession.

Let's leave that one for the moment and come back to the question of whether David Brown, on leave since the June 20 shootings, can be an effective chief.

Brown, the people I spoke with agreed, is a tough guy, smart but self-contained, without the coterie of good-old-boy buddies in the department that tend to get chiefs in trouble. Generally speaking a chief needs more buddies in the department like he needs more girlfriends. Not.

As terrible as the tragedy of his son's actions may be, there is nothing in the tragedy itself to stop Brown from doing what some people think needs doing.

The Dallas Police Department is built around a solid core of professional and un-corruptible officers with a history of soldiering on through thick and thin. But around that core is a cadre of slackers and malingerers who think the world owes them a living because they walk down dark alleys at night.

Former Chief David Kunkle, with David Brown as his chief assistant and hammer, did a good job bringing discipline to the malingerers. And not by kissing and hugging them. As one observer of the department put it to me, "The rank and file don't always need to be inspired by the chief. There needs to be an element of fear in there, too."

Brown can do fear. He has earned a reputation over the years for an aloof toughness that sometimes trends into abrasiveness and for a serious introspective quality that sometimes goes broody. People who have worked with him call him temperamental. Some people who grew up with him in South Oak Cliff respect him, have pride in his accomplishments but don't especially like him.

Sounds more and more like a police chief to me. The job, after all, is not game-show host.

But the job can also be 10 times harder on the chief than he is on it. And that is where I hear some real concern about Brown and his reentry into leadership.

I wrote on our blog, Unfair Park, last week that I thought it was terrible to blame this man for what his 27-year-old son did. Anonymous commenters—some of whom I suspect were cops—wrote back saying it's easy for a non-cop to tell cops whom to forgive in a cop-killing. Good point. Let's assume there is truth that dwells between these extremes.

 

The fact is that David Brown is the father of a cop-killer. That's a fact. It's not going away. He occupies a very political post. And in politics, especially local politics, nothing is off the table. Ever. It's there, waiting. That dog will hunt.

Someone will throw it at him at some point. That knife is out there, ready to fly—a given, a lock-cinch sure thing. The only question is how Brown faces the knife.

Even some of the people who admire Brown worry about that one. He has some disabilities. For one thing, he doesn't get media. He thinks reporters are either out to get him or they're his friends, which makes about as much sense as saying the same thing about horse flies.

But more than that, his toughness and aloofness can make him rigid, according to people who have worked closely with him. He sometimes reacts to opposition and resistance with anger. He'll have to understand that somebody who accuses him of sharing the guilt for his son's act is not looking for dialogue. They will throw the knife to provoke his anger, to pull him down to a fight that should be beneath him.

He will need to have some smooth, some bend, some duck and dodge to get that knife past him. And tough rigid guys can have trouble ducking and dodging.

I also have spoken with people who know him and have observed him closely since this crisis occurred. They say don't worry. He gets it all. He knows what he must do, and he'll be ready when he's ready.

One of the more interesting theories I heard was this: Not every police chief comes into office with a mission of sticking around forever. They're not all out to be everybody's favorite uncle. Sometimes a good chief comes in with the specific mission of being everybody's son-of-a-bitch and then not sticking around for Thanksgiving dinner.

Even with the baggage of this sad chapter early in his tenure, Brown could still come in and be a hell of an effective transitional chief—a chief whose job would be to complete the cycle of discipline and reform begun under Brown's predecessor, David Kunkle.

Kunkle was popular outside the police force because he cleaned up the Augean mess left behind by his own predecessor, Terrell Bolton, whom I always took for a very bizarre person. But Kunkle was not universally loved by the rank and file by any means. Within six months of Kunkle's appointment, Glenn White, president of the largest police union, told me he wished he had Bolton back.

When White told me that, I thought to myself, "Sure. Because Kunkle cracks the whip instead of just being cracked."

Kunkle was a transitional chief who lasted longer than most transitional chiefs, over five years in office. But his tenure was devoted more to difficult change than to popularity.

So how do you lead if not by popularity? Oh, come on. We all know the answer to that one. You do it by telling people to do what you tell them to do or you'll fire them. I asked on the blog last week: Among those of us who are not cops, how often does management come around the workplace and ask for a show of hands on who loves the boss?

Even if they did, I would worry it's a trick and everybody who raises his hand is going to get offered a buy-out. Or, just, you know: get out.

These are tough times all over, in case nobody noticed, and especially at City Hall. That was another theme I heard in talking to people last week. The police department is only one of several major divisions of city government with new leadership and severe cutbacks. I don't know that this is really the right time to be giving your boss a lot of grief over immensely painful chapters in his personal life. But I suppose people do not always behave rationally on these scores.

And again, for proof of that one, let's go back to the great Funeral Procession Scandal. First Assistant Chief Charlie Cato and Deputy Chief Julian Bernal have been accused of dishonoring the department by ordering motorcycle police to assist with traffic for the cortege of chief Brown's son, the cop-killer.

I come from a business that is culturally anti-ceremonial. I do understand that ceremony is important to cops, soldiers, clergy, YMCA athletes and others, and I do respect that.

But another entire story is being developed, meanwhile, to the effect that suddenly ordering police officers to mount their motorcycles and come to the aid of the bad man's cortege exposed them to danger because it forced them to get on their motorcycles too suddenly.

 

I'm having trouble with that story. You know why? It's too long. The explanation takes too long. Tell me again why the motorcycle police can't get on their motorcycles suddenly. Yeah. OK Uh-huh. Hey. Sorry. This is taking too long. I have a time limit for stories like this. Probably shouldn't. Just do.

It sounds like people who are just going over the top. It sounds like people taking advantage of everyone else's sensitivity and how horrible everybody feels about the whole damn thing.

It's bad behavior. And far from needing a new chief to come in and kiss their asses and do what they want him to do, the cops who won't let this thing die need to stop it and drop it.

Brown could be that chief, if he doesn't go postal. He could come in, stand up to the guff, take it for about 30 seconds, then put his head down and get to work. Or he could go nuts. That's the real question. Chief. Or postal.

So. I hope this has been sufficiently embarrassing. Call on me any time.


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