City Hall

We Love You Ex-Police Chief David Brown. Now Please Go Away, for Your Own Good.

Not that newly retired Dallas police Chief David Brown is asking for the Observer's advice, but that's never stopped us before, so here goes: Sic transit gloria mundi.

That's Latin for "the glories of the world are fleeting" or, less literally, "don't get a big head, pal." It's what slaves used to whisper in the ears of Roman generals returning in triumph, a little reminder that even in pre-social media history, the mob is fickle. Love you today, feed you hemlock tomorrow.

We mention this because Brown is, by most accounts, a good and decent cop and human being. He's personable, a natural leader whose calm and compassionate words helped knit this city's wounds after the July 7 police ambush that left five officers dead downtown.

Worryingly, it also won him a trove of giddy fans. Get this: "In the face of unspeakable tragedy, Dallas police Chief David Brown has won over the country with his grace, passion and gentle humor," the Washington Post reported on July 11, speaking about the sudden bloom of "David Brown for president" tweets from across the country.

The tweets started registering red hot for Brown not long after July 7, and even today the ex-chief is coming scarily close to rising to folk hero status. Twitter, politics, folk hero, attention from the mainstream Yankee media. Hoo-boy. What's Latin for "it'll all end in tears"?

And the love fest continued as Brown retired last week after 33 years as a Dallas cop. Mayor Mike Rawlings, Senator Ted Cruz and a slew of other politicos tweeted their congratulations and thanks for a job well done. The feds came to town and dropped $3.1 million to pay for new police officers, with the U.S. attorney general heaping praise on the DPD the whole time. Brown even got a mention at last week's vice presidential debate, to mutual agreement of both major party candidates. 

So now we'll be the slave whispering in the ears of a triumphant Caesar. Someone has to.

Before the national fan club formed, Brown's tenure as chief was looking iffy. Violent crime was up. The Dallas Police Association began calling for his resignation last year, citing poor morale and problems with low pay, manpower and the pension fund. At least two City Council members were demanding his dismissal as early as 2015, the Morning News reported. The Black Police Officers Association joined them in March, saying:

The current atmosphere within the Dallas Police Department is one of vengeance, distrust, retaliation, and failure to employ the most prudent use of manpower. We believe that as a professional organization of police officers, that this has severely crippled the ability to best fight crime. Subsequently, the executive board of the Black Police Association has overwhelmingly voted to reject the continued leadership of this department by David O. Brown. 

Wouldn't that be a nice quote to see on a political ad by an opponent, if Brown were the sort to take Twitter too much to heart and eye national office? 

An odd thing about Brown's case isn't that the goat became the hero — that's an old story, and it's a narrative the media loves. It's how he became a hero. At the risk of coming across a bit like Donald Trump describing John McCain's war record, let us remind everyone that five officers were shot dead on the streets after a rally protesting police violence.

In a certain light that might be regarded as a career-ending failure.

Hey, wait, whoa. We know. Not his fault, but let's stick with politics here, where reality doesn't matter, and consider. Brown already had plenty of detractors, so it's not hard to imagine the fallout of Micah Johnson's rampage cutting the other way, with commissions appointed to ask questions about whether police leaders — i.e. Brown — did everything they could to prevent the shooting.

What that might have been is hard to imagine; riot gear for cops and snipers on rooftops watching over the Black Lives Matter protest would have been politically unpalatable. Still, some officers point to the most recent Donald Trump political rally in Dallas as an example of how the department used a heavier hand — and better communication with protesters — to keep a potentially volatile situation calm.

Brown's rallying cry for community policing is cited as the antidote to the militarization of police. But his decision to end the police standoff with Johnson by sending in a robot armed with a bomb to kill him was a groundbreaking use of military technology by a civilian police force. Deploying a wheeled version of Robocop in a post-Ferguson political environment was a move that might have blown up more than just Johnson.  

In this case, it's hard to imagine anyone caring enough about Johnson to ask. That silence persists, for now at least, with Brown safely in retirement and not doing anything foolish like interviewing for a campaign treasurer for national office.

The point is that with five officers down, Brown the Goat might have easily become a sacrificial one once the blame game started. So how did he avoid that fate? Partly, it comes down to good crisis management, and Brown's actions post July 7 were masterful.

The important thing for a manager in a crisis is to be in front of the cameras and doing something positive, says Dr. Timothy Coombs, professor of communication at Texas A&M and author of Ongoing Crisis Communications. Being seen providing tangible help is key to what Coombs described as crisis exploitation, or "when leaders use a crisis to their advantage."

That's not as necessarily cynical as it sounds. Not even his biggest detractors would argue that Brown was anything less than sincerely, deeply moved in the days after July 7 when he urged the police and community to unite. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve."

But his appointed role as healer-in-chief helped his stature as well. The important thing in a crisis is to come across as a positive, active influence. That's why politicians appear so often on television hefting sandbags in the rain when the flooding is unstoppable.  

Of course, charisma helps in such situations, and even Brown's opponents admit he has loads of the stuff. "He is charismatic and he is convincing, and when he talks people listen," says new DPA President Frederick Frazier, who acknowledges that Brown only "had so much to work with" when it comes to issue like pay and staffing, which ultimately are controlled at City Hall.

Frazier says he sympathizes with anyone trying to lead the department, but even he lays much of the blame for morale problems at the department at Brown's feet. There have been a series of choices that have hurt morale, Frazier says: Reassignments of veteran officers to deal with jumps in crime stats, moving detectives away from their jobs to handle patrol duties and other acts that seem more like good politics than good police work — such as overly restrictive policies on foot and vehicle chases that let the bad guys get away.

He describes the DPD under Brown as a good team with a bad quarterback.

These are all issues that Brown's successor, poor soul, will have to face. Not only that, but for all their good effect, Brown's words after July 7 didn't magically solve the underlying tension between the police and Dallas' minority communities, as Rasheedah McClenon, the Next Generation Action Network deputy chief, remarked last week:

In light of all the recent attention to the city of Dallas surrounding the tragic police murders on July 7 after a peaceful protest led by NGAN, it is irresponsible to ignore the fact that Dallas, Texas, has its own Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The Dallas Police Department and DART are not the only ones who experienced loss at the close of July the 7th. The entire city of Dallas lost that night. And 800 plus protesters were traumatized and scarred for life, not to mention the other officers who witnessed the killings as well. The morale is low and now is not the time for sweeping these instances under the rug.

And that leads us to one final point about good crisis management, from Coombs: Quit while you're ahead. Brown certainly nailed that one, exiting the stage to a standing ovation.

Coombs says former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is an example of how to fail at knowing when to shut up. Giuliani's demeanor post-911 earned him the rubric "America's mayor" up until he ran for president. "He wore it out," Coombs says. "People started saying, 'Can't you talk about anything else?'"

Those are words America's chief of police should remember in the unlikely event all the national media and Twitter-love tempt him to do something rash. And if that's not enough, maybe someone should stand behind him and whisper two words into his ear: Rudy Giuliani.
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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams