On the Record with Dallas Chief of Police David Brown

Dallas Police Chief David Brown isn't afraid of media interviews. Or if he is, he does a great job hiding it. Maybe he sees them as a challenge — he exhibits all the signs of a person who is energized by struggle. Case in point: As the interview goes on, he gets more animated instead of wearing down. By the time an hour has passed, he's warmed up and literally looking for more questions. "What else you got," he asks. "Give me another good one."

There may be no such thing as "natural born police" but Brown comes close. He's a homegrown talent, born and raised in Dallas. Brown's never worked for another department since joining the Dallas Police Department in 1983, but he's hopped across patrol, SWAT and internal affairs divisions. He also did a stint in city government, serving as assistant city manager in 2007 and 2008, giving him a political vantage that is required for the job of top cop. He's so DPD that he even married a former Dallas police sergeant, his high school girlfriend.

"I was just one of those square kids in a tough neighborhood."

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Brown's life is marked by success, but also by pain and loss. Street violence has claimed the lives of his brother, a former police partner and, most devastating, his son. In 2010 David Brown Jr. killed a man and a Lancaster police officer before being shot to death by police. This loss hit him after just one month on the job as chief. So when he says, "I’ve had almost every tragedy you can imagine," you can be assured he means it.

Brown's tenure has been marked with improving crime statistics and high-profile firings of crooked police officers, but it's also been marred by infighting. Last year that boiled over as a hodgepodge of unions — Dallas Police Association, the Texas Municipal Police Association, the National Association of Police Organizations, the National Black Police Association and the city, state and national Fraternal Orders of Police — called for his head. But the mayor and city manager didn't buckle, and Brown remains in charge.
This interview was conducted at police headquarters, in a conference room near Brown's office, under the watchful eye of two staff and a video camera on a tripod. This recording can be used to counter or clarify anything the media writes that DPD feels is inaccurate. Policies like this at DPD remind you that, as Brown says, police instinctively "hope for the best but plan for the worst."

Dallas Observer: What prompted you to become a cop?

Chief Brown: I’m third-generation Dallas, born and raised in Oak Cliff, attended South Oak Cliff High School. That summer after high school, I went directly to University of Texas-Austin on a scholarship. My intentions were to go to law school. This is 1979 through about early ’83.

My neighborhood, it’s a tough neighborhood. It was tough when I was growing up, but it was my neighborhood, right? You just don’t know the difference compared to other neighborhoods. I had a lot of support, a lot of mentoring, a lot of good friends there.

During the summer is when I would come back home from school. The neighborhood began to deteriorate a little bit more. When the crack cocaine epidemic hit Dallas, I was in college, and the summer I returned I saw that it devastated my neighborhood. Kids tried it, got hooked and you know the rest of it. Everybody knows the story. The people I knew since I was little just weren’t the same people. People I knew, their mothers and grandmothers, just totally devastated.  

I began thinking about law enforcement then. I wanted to do something rather than just complain about what was happening.

DO: Were there any interactions with the police when you were young that gave you an impression of them?

Chief Brown: Not positive. You stay away from the police in my old neighborhood. You get the police; you get in trouble. But I had very strict parenting, so I couldn’t stay out late at night. When it got dusk I had to be at home, not on the way home. My mom made that very clear early on, so I couldn’t hang out, right? I was just one of those square kids in a tough neighborhood.

DO: So where did you get your positive impressions about police?

Chief Brown: So this was the weirdest thing. So Shaft is not a police officer in the movie, right? He’s associated with the police, he was a private detective. But that’s my ideal policeman — John Shaft, [from the] 1970s blaxploitation movie. I said, "Man, that’s a cool dude." Movies and entertainment kind of started shaping me. I’ve always loved cop shows. You know, kind of what at least television portrays what their intent is supposed to be, that they’re there to try to make things right. I’ve been locked into every police show; I’ve always gravitated toward them. Not so much today. Maybe Blue Bloods today.

So I didn’t have any idea about what as a police officer you could do, but I thought that police officers help people. They come and they restore order. They put the disreputables in jail. I mean, that’s kind of the inclinations I had about what I was embarking on. But I left college before I graduated, at my last semester of my senior year, and joined up.
You can’t choose your beat, you can’t even choose the patrol section you go to. I ended up having the evening shift in my old neighborhood as my first beat. Just happenstance. And I got to do what I still consider a lot of good work for people. And a lot of tough work, you know, having to arrest some of my friends.  

I got hooked right away. I mean, right away I knew this is all I wanted to do. Being a lawyer was just something I wrote off.

DO: Do you think there’s something innate that got triggered that drew you to police work, once you actually experienced it?

Chief Brown: I liked the fact that I could see, almost instantaneously, the effects of my actions. I was a hard charger, you know. I was passionate. I’ve had all the stuff every cop has early on as a rookie, and it has just never waned.

"I’m not just popping off. "

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DO: I can understand the immediate gratification part. Has that stayed with you as you climb up the ladder in the department?

Chief Brown: Yes, but it's hard to find. Man, I spend all day trying to find that moment, to keep myself encouraged and help encourage others. It’s a little bit more difficult to find it through some of the politics and some of the crap that I’ve got to absorb. But at the same time, you know, if I could find that moment where I can hear or see a story about what our department did for a neighborhood, or if you read the stories of what happens in our crimes against persons [division] when a detective solves a case, that keeps you going. Putting people at the right place to be successful is really encouraging as well.

DO: Now that you’ve seen it from top to bottom, since the 1980s, what are the best and worst changes in Dallas in terms of public safety?

Chief Brown: I’m a nerd in this area. A big nerd. I know a lot about the history of this department, what it was and what it is now. So we began keeping records in 1930. ...We were a very progressive department; not many departments were keeping records back then. These records are similar to how we keep records today, so I put those in a big spreadsheet, like an accounting spreadsheet. And it’s percentage increase, decrease, every category, population, with the rate of crime for every year going back to 1930. I did that when I was second in command for six years because I wanted to know what were we really accomplishing. Not just year-to-year. How do we compare in history for Dallas.

Man, it’s been amazing. I know I come across as being a little bit egotistical, but this is the best generation of cops we’ve ever had, and you could go back and look at any year. I’m just talking about kind of the basketball comparison of triple doubles, you know, where you have 20 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists. That very rarely happens. So we’ve had a triple double of crime stats: three double-digit declining years during my tenure. That has never happened in 86 years of records.

DO: Stats can be dangerous things. Whenever you bring them out, people will poke holes in them. We certainly did: The Observer noted the violent crime rate has risen 8.5 percent.

Chief Brown: It was up 6 percent, not eight. [Brown is citing a one-year jump; the Observer calculated two years. –Ed] But nonetheless it was up. But the up was a 40-year low. That’s equivalent to 1968. For a year-to-year comparison, you’re safer than you have been since I was 8 years old.

I always go back to where critics are: “You’re just manipulating the books to get a reduction every year. We’re not any safer.” So which ones of those categories would you agree would be the teller of the tale? And everybody says, "homicides."  You can’t hide the bodies, right? That’s a reference from The Wire. You can’t hide them; we’re not hiding any bodies. So if our biggest critics agree that looking at homicides will tell the tale of how safe the city is, well, during my tenure we have the second, fourth, fifth, sixth lowest homicide rates in the city’s history. The other homicide rates that are as low as what’s happened since 2010 are in 1930 and 1950. And all the other categories are 40- and 50-year lows.

"We’re never going to sit with our back to the door."

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And so you know, I’m not just popping off. I really am trying to keep cops encouraged. Every year we get 200 cops assaulted by suspects. Over the last 12 years we’ve lost five cops in the line of duty. I mean, it’s not just numbers on a page. It’s sacrifice, and it’s sacrifice at the highest level.

I make no apologies for trying to tell a story about this generation of cops because they’ve just done extraordinary work. They need a pat on the back because it’s not the best of times for police right now. It’s hypercritical. Some of it’s deserved. But this department is, if not the best, among the best in the country.

DO: I can’t imagine something that’s more demoralizing than having someone attack headquarters. [Last June, 35-year-old James Boulware planted pipe bombs and then shot up DPD headquarters. He was later shot to death by a police sniper.-Ed] What’s the long-term effect of something like that?

Chief Brown: It's really amazing that we didn’t lose a cop that night. But the effects of it are real, today. We think that our safe haven is the workplace. You know, we come to work and we gear up to go out to the beat. 

And that thought process is now out the window. The workplace is not a safe haven, and it was naive for us to think that it ever was. 

It messes with your psyche that when you come to work you need to have your head on a swivel walking between your car and the building. It was a very impactful event for us. It was symbolic to have an attack on police headquarters. I think it reverberates throughout the department still today.

I heard from the Association of Union Presidents, "When we going to beef up security?"  It’s on our minds that we’ve got to have a fence, getting control over access at all our facilities. I mean, cops are generally paranoid anyway. We’re hyper-vigilant. We hope for the best, but until we eliminate the worst, we think the worst is going to happen.

Go to a restaurant with us one time. Go eat lunch with us. We’re never going to sit with our back to the door, right? And if you’re in that seat you’re going to have to get up because we have to sit there, because you’re not going to do what I have to do if somebody comes in there and robs the place.

So when things happen like an attack on headquarters, it just supports the way we’re thinking. That may never happen again for another hundred years, but it happened so it could happen again and that’s just how we think.

DO: Were you sort of disappointed when the city hired a consultant to look at hardening police facilities rather than putting some of that money toward improvements that would happen more quickly?

Chief Brown: No. I’ve been around a while, right? This will be my 33rd year, and I was over at City Hall four years as assistant city manager, so I knew the bureaucracy of procurement. Any type of large amount of cash outlay will take a process. ... I knew that, so almost immediately I came to the conclusion that we need to do something that would not depend on that process. So I immediately posted officers with rifles at every police facility. If you look at what happened at the police headquarters attack, what ended that siege was cops confronting him. Bullet-proof glass didn’t end that siege. Gates wouldn’t have ended it. A cop stepped out of their car and returned fire; that’s what got [the shooter] to leave the area. And we continue that today. So if you’re going to come to our facility and try to do us harm, you will be confronted.

DO: An Army medic once told me that the best first aid is fire superiority.

Chief Brown: That’s right. They don’t like it when the rabbit’s got the gun. Hunting’s a sport, but when the rabbit starts shooting back at you, that’s a real sport.

DO: You’ve become sort of an icon for community policing, of using manpower to build collaboration with the community to nip problems in the bud. Has it been worth the fight?

Chief Brown: That’s been the biggest internal debate that we’ve had. We’ve had that debate since the ‘80s when Billy Prince brought in police storefronts with his number two at the time, Harold Warren, and that was a very controversial thing. It was thought of internally as a waste of time — cops not doing anything to contribute to keeping citizens safe. 

"We were ahead of what happened in Ferguson."

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I’ve committed way more resources than we have in the past to community policing, right? I’ve kind of put all my chips in just saying community policing is going to be the way we police, and I’ve committed a lot of resources in the face of a lot of criticism saying that it’s a waste of resources. 

But I could just tell you it’s been our saving grace. We averaged 18 police-involved shootings a year over the last 20 years. So we have a high number of police-involved shootings. Most of have not been a violation of our deadly force policies. Some have and they’ve been held accountable. Yet we still have, I believe, strong community support because of community policing, because of transparency and because of holding officers accountable.

We were ahead of what happened in Ferguson. We had similar incidents to Ferguson, Missouri, a year prior but because I think of how we responded, because of our work in the community, we’ve been able to maintain our trust in the community. We haven’t had the type of protests that you see in other major cities.

DO: Is it hard to quantify that sort of intangible benefit?

Chief Brown: Just look at the tenure of community policing. My tenure has been the most dramatic drop in crime of any chief’s tenure, of the 28 chiefs. 

I mentioned those [low] murder rates. Those all happened during the most aggressive community policing years. Aggressive community policing makes us safer, maintains trust in the community. Everything being equal, crime rates, population measure the same down to the way we’ve always measured over 86 years. In my opinion, how can you argue with aggressive community policing if it has yielded the safest the city has been over 86 years?

DO: You have a reputation for being a tough boss. I mean, that’s even in your Wikipedia entry, so it must be true.

Chief Brown: Well, I have fired 70 cops. It’s a high number. Nobody could go back and find a chief that’s fired that many cops. But that’s just 2 percent of the organization. And so I’ve been willing to get criticized for being too hard on 2 percent of the cops so that the 98 percent of the cops won’t be perceived as complicit or they can maintain the trust of the public, rather than not hold that 2 percent accountable and they taint everybody else with that broad brush of their behavior. That’s what I’ve been willing to do, and if that’s stern I accept that. Stern or hard or unyielding — whatever you want to call it.

DO: Firing that many people causes a lot of angst, as do internal affairs investigations.

Chief Brown: The organization gets a complaint on 350 cops a year. The number that go to internal affairs, get investigated and get disciplined, whatever level it is, they are a vocal majority of the organization. They are passionate about how they were treated. They don’t like it.

And they’ll get in front of a camera. They’ll stay up all night on Facebook or Twitter to let everybody know. They’ll call you reporters and, you know, talk about the organization in a negative way because they’re angry about the fact that they were disciplined by the department. Every day they’re going to let us know that the organization didn’t treat them right and that’s, you know, that’s the contentious nature of union politics and association because they vote in union.

They’re the people that show up every election and vote in union elections and, you know, they call the union presidents and say, “Hey, man. Get the chief because the chief disciplined me.” You know, “Chief Vindictive, yadda, yadda, yadda.” I mean that’s the badge of honor right there.

"We found something on a laptop and we thought it needed to be looked at further for terrorism."

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DO:  Police are at the front end of domestic shootings from homegrown and foreign-inspired terrorists. There are two sides: reaction and prevention. Dallas' SWAT team is very well regarded, but what's Dallas’ posture when it comes to intelligence gathering and prevention?

Chief Brown: It’s not just one thing that we do. The first big thing that we do is that we partner with our federal law enforcement partners here, the FBI, Homeland Security and Secret Service. All that. So we are on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. We have a big commitment of officers there. I’d rather not say how many, but we have the biggest commitment of officers in the area. So we commit resources to the intelligence when we are talking about knowing what’s going on overseas and how it impacts us. Knowing who the people on the no-fly list are. Knowing who’s traveling. Knowing who’s maybe passed some indications of being radicalized, but not enough to get a warrant to do anything further, but you want to monitor where they are in your city.

So we coordinate with a lot of people in the federal partnership with the FBI, Homeland Security, Secret Service and with ICE. We also have our fusion center in our police headquarters that is our intelligence center, for not only street crime but also terrorism.  There’s a connection to the federal partnership and our fusion center. We exchange information. And then when there are crisis incidents anywhere in the world, we convene and discuss what that means for Dallas. And if it means something for Dallas, we take action immediately.  

DO: So Dallas PD is not just a consumer of federal intelligence, from what it sounds like. It’s more of a back and forth?

Chief Brown: That’s more accurate. It’s more of a partnership. We exchange a lot of information, and we also do things independently. We might have a narcotics investigation that might have a terrorism nexus, right? So narcotics officers might be working independently, and get something that needs to spin up to the feds. And at the same time they may be doing something at the federal level that might not necessarily be something that can go any further but they identify some street crime associations. They pass that down to us. And so we work that, and if we’re able to do something that helps further the federal investigation we pass it back up.

We’re constantly exchanging information. All of that has happened for — I mean, for real. We’ve had all of the examples I just gave you where we couldn’t go any further federally. We were able to put them in jail on state charges or we got a state charge that we found something on a laptop and we thought it needed to be looked at further for terrorism. We spun it up to the feds and it played out positively for them.

DO: There are all sorts of hardships in your background. Does that personal pain make you a better police officer?  

Chief Brown: I don’t look at it that way. Here’s the way I would look at that. You’re going to really find out who you are doing this job, as a person. It’s going to challenge you and your principles at its core, right? And so no matter what the tragedy, and I’ve had almost every tragedy you can imagine and, you know, you need a strong reason why you want to do this. That's not just as the chief but also as officers of any rank.

"People hold grudges for a long time and they’re going to be in the bushes waiting to get you."

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And you’ve got to really love people because you see people at their worst. When you have personal issues and you come to work and you have to see people at their worst, it makes it even harder. You have to put the people first, before your own personal whatever. And so it will challenge you at your core on why you want to do this.  

I mean, why do you want to be the chief? You’ve got to really have a good reason. It can’t be because I like the title or I like the pay. You’d give that money back some days, it’s so challenging. I ask the officers, “Anybody want to wear the stars today?” Because some days you'd hate coming to work if you didn’t have a really kind of deep down reason why you want to do this.

It will challenge you. It will challenge you personally as far as what your principles are. I’m talking about right and wrong. The politics of right and wrong is, let’s settle for the gray. But there’s a right and wrong on things that we do. We have to follow the law, right? We have to be sure everybody’s discerning, but the politics of it often pushes you toward the gray as a compromise.

And I’m often in a political world. I’m often having to listen to a lot of politicians and how they navigate the political landscape. And I’ve stepped back from it and said, what am I obligated from my oath to do? It may be in conflict with the political landscape. 
What I say about chief is, choose the principle you want to be fired on. Choose it and believe in it, and you may be fired and that’s got to be OK with you. You’ve got to choose that right thing.

That’s not to say that you’ve got to be so stubborn that you can’t find ways to accomplish the same thing, because there’s multiple ways to solve problems, but there are lines you can’t cross as a police officer. And as chief you’ve got to be willing to say to your bosses many times, "This is the way we’ve got to do it."

I’m not saying people are constantly asking me to, you know, do things that are illegal or immoral. That’s not the case, but you could make decisions based on those principles that can make a lot of political enemies for you. And people hold grudges for a long time and they’re going to be in the bushes waiting to get you.

DO: Are you still waiting for the blow-back for your decisions?

Chief Brown: You sure do, yeah.

DO: What are some that you think will come back on you?

Chief Brown: Community policing is one of them. The unions don’t like it, right? It’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of officer time. Union bosses contribute to campaigns. The councilmen hire the city manager and so at some point they might get the political will to make a change, but until they do we’ll be doing community policing. I think it should be the way we do business, a way that includes the public and has to be transparent. If that gets you fired, that’s worth getting fired over.

DO: Is the effort to equip officers with body cameras generating that level of discontent?

Chief Brown: No. Surprisingly we thought that body cameras would be part of that kind of push-back but apparently the millennials we’re hiring had a different view of things than their 50-year-old union bosses. So they clamor for wearing body cameras. We got a list of people waiting, and so we got the first 200 out. We have the next 200 out in the next month [February]. And by the end of the year we’ll have a thousand body cameras on our officers on patrol.

DO: What does someone do after they’re chief of police in Dallas?

Chief Brown: You know, tomorrow’s not kind to the chiefing business. I just try to figure out how I’m going to do the next thing here. I’m really still feeling like I did when I got here in 1983. I really do. I relish the challenge. I got one of those motors that don’t quit, you know. If it was easy, I’d be bored. And I really enjoy my tenure as chief. I hope to continue to contribute.

One of my mentors is Chief Don Stafford: He’s the first black chief in our department, chief level in our department; the first black chief level in the South; the first black sergeant in the department; the first black lieutenant in the department; the first black captain in the department; the first black deputy chief. He’s been the first and the only African American in the room for most of his career.

He retired back in the ‘80s with 33 years of service. He’s just an amazing role model, for not just African Americans but for anyone that wants to lead the department.

He said this to me early on in my tenure as chief, and I really hadn’t thought about it in these terms. “Your commitment to Dallas doesn’t stop whenever you do leave, you know,” he said. “They’re going to pay you a pension and you owe this city something, so you’ve got to stay involved in making this city better because you owe them.”

"Let me have the seat."

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It’s public service. The city gives something to us, and we owe this city something as public servants beyond the job. I never thought about it in those terms but it is so true.

DO: Do you speak to Stafford often?

Chief Brown : Every month we have lunch. I relish the time we spend together. He doesn’t have any skin in the game. He gives you that sounding board, great advice without caring about how you decide. He just tries to give you thoughts, things to think about, the thought process. He’s 80 years old, and he’s just as sharp as ever.

And when I go meet him, I have to get there early because he will sit facing the door every time, like he’s going to do something. I say, “Man, I’m still the cop. Let me have the seat.”