David Brown Is Making Dallas Safer Through Smart Policing, but Not without Controversy

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Dallas Police Chief David Brown didn't need to be told there was unrest. The barest recitation of facts -- 31-year-old male, unarmed, dead from a cop's bullet in Dixon Circle -- was enough. He knew the South Dallas neighborhood as a powder keg, just as it had been when his SWAT team was called there 20 years earlier to check the seething outrage that followed the Rodney King case. One spark could set it off, and James Harper's July 2012 death threatened to become a flamethrower.

Brown, his day off prematurely over, donned his uniform and arrived on Bourquin Street, where he helped talk down a restive crowd, just as John Wiley Price had done two decades before. The mob dispersed, crisis averted.

But while Dallas may have dodged a riot, Dixon Circle remained the same resentful pocket of anger and distrust it had been for more than a generation. Emergency triage is one thing. Healing a relationship with an ill-used and forgotten part of the city is something else entirely.

The James Harper shooting marked a turning point for Brown. He was already a believer in community policing, of having officers patrol neighborhoods as community members rather than an occupying force. Post-Harper, he pursued this policy with a new sense of urgency.

Before, Dallas cops shot civilians with relative impunity. Now, pulling the trigger in the wrong situation is liable to get them fired and, if the shooting's egregious enough and caught on video, indicted. Brown will probably even live-tweet their disciplinary hearing.

The rank-and-file aren't all pleased. Brown's chief public foe, Dallas Police Association President Ron Pinkston, says Brown has crushed morale and made officers less safe by making them question when it's OK to pull the trigger. Neither are community activists, several of whom showed up at City Hall to plead for the creation of an independent police monitor to review all officer-involved shootings.

Brown welcomes the back-and-forth as part of a healthy civic dialogue, but he rejects the criticism. The department's upper ranks -- and especially the police unions -- are populated by old-school, thin-blue-line types who feel cops can do no wrong. Brown frames his tenure as an attempt to usher a new way of thinking built around transparency, accountability and, judging by his Twitter profile, the prolific use of social media.

Besides, the cops and the activists don't write DPD's budget. That's the City Council's job, and Brown has proven himself an adept politician. The evidence is there to be seen at any given meeting of the council's public safety committee, whose members seldom fail to shower Brown with praise.

With crime in Dallas down for the 10th consecutive year, who can blame them? Part of the drop can be explained away as part of a national trend or chalked up to changes to the way the department reports certain offenses, such as shoplifting. But the decline is real. Dallas is an objectively safer city than it was when Brown took over four years ago. He doesn't see why that should stop now.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson