Photo by Lee Stranahan

The Contradictions of a Progressive Police Chief

Newly appointed CPD Superintendent David Brown left a complicated legacy in Dallas. Will he have his second chance in Chicago?

In July 2016, when five police officers were killed by a sniper at a protest in Dallas, the city’s then-police chief David Brown rose to the national spotlight for his call for unity in a difficult time. A glowing profile in Texas Monthly, coverage in the New York Times referring to him as a “reformer,” praise from conservatives in The Atlantic and National Review, and more prompted some around the country to call for the chief to make a presidential run, using the hashtag #DavidBrownForPresident. Former New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton said that Brown “represents some of the best progressive police leadership today,” and Brown himself said in an interview, “A gap has been bridged between the community and its police department.” Just two months later, in September, Brown resigned from his position in what looked from afar like the kind of graceful exit that many big-city police chiefs are unable to effect—he acknowledged in a 2017 interview that most Dallas chiefs before him were “run out of town”—and soon after, published a memoir, Called to Rise: The Power of Community in a Nation Divided, and signed on as a contributor to ABC News.

Nearly four years later, Brown is entering the world of policing once again. He was confirmed as Chicago’s new police superintendent in a unanimous approval by Chicago’s City Council on April 22, replacing former Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who was fired just weeks before his planned retirement

Brown wasn’t initially the obvious favorite choice for the role. Former chief of detectives for the Los Angeles Police Department Sean Malinowski, Chicago Police Deputy Chief Ernest Cato, and west suburban Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman were also in the running, with a reported nineteen others. Malinowski seemed an early favorite for his big-city experience and success in managing a consent decree during his time in Los Angeles. He was also familiar with the inner workings of the Chicago Police Department, because of his experience as a former consultant to CPD following the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video and the current director of policing innovation and reform at the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which works closely with CPD. Cato had some community support, as the only finalist who was already a part of the Chicago Police. Ziman had received praise for the Aurora Police Department’s response to the 2019 Henry Pratt Manufacturing shooting.

But there was little time to collect community input—and in a shock, Malinowski wasn’t even presented as an option by the Police Board. Just a day later, in the midst of a nationwide pandemic, Brown was picked by Mayor Lori Lightfoot

“Typically, the Police Board announces three finalists to the mayor and to the public. The mayor then interviews the finalists and there are opportunities for public vetting, feedback, confirmation hearings. And here, in contrast, the mayor announced her pick the day after the finalists’ names were made public,” explained Craig Futterman, director of the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School.

The process of choosing Chicago’s next police superintendent is led—per city ordinance—by the Police Board rather than the mayor. However, Lightfoot, who served as the president of the Police Board the last time a superintendent was selected, publicly stated in April that she had been considering Brown for the job since December, far before his name appeared on the Police Board shortlist. 

“Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of community oversight of the police is having a meaningful role in selecting the chief… Here, you have the police board, which is supposed to be a proxy for the community, under the mayor’s control, both appointed and removed by the mayor,” Futterman said, echoing criticisms made by progressive organizations and elected officials. 

29th Ward Alderman Chris Taliaferro, a former CPD officer whom Lightfoot appointed as chair of the City Council’s Committee on Public Safety last May, defended the selection process, contending that “[the process] does not preclude the mayor from looking herself.” He added, “It’s very evident not just to me, but also all of my colleagues, that the mayor did a fantastic job in allowing the process to proceed in accordance with ordinance.”

As he was being sworn in, Brown advised Chicagoans, “Buckle your seat belts, we’re headed to the moon,” outlining his goals for Chicago to have the lowest murders and shootings on record as well as “the highest level of trust in its officers from its residents,” a particularly lofty goal for a police force that has been plagued with corruption and cover-ups spanning the last several decades. When asked why the Dallas native would want to lead Chicago’s police force, Brown responded, “Are you kidding me? The city that produced Michelle Obama and elected Mayor Lightfoot. I volunteer. Sign me up.” Notably, the superintendent position is far from a volunteer role. Brown will be getting paid $260,044 each year for his work.

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Brown’s story is a moving one. Before Brown’s move to Chicago, his family had lived in Dallas for four generations. He attended South Oak Cliff High School, a prominent predominantly Black high school in the city, before enrolling at the University of Texas at Austin. He says in interviews that he left college and his dreams of being an attorney to join the Dallas police force as a patrol officer in 1983, dropping out of college to do so, after he saw the crack epidemic’s effect on his Oak Cliff neighborhood. 

Over the next few years, Brown moved up the ranks of the force, working in patrol divisions, the SWAT team, internal affairs, and more. 

But just a few years into the job, tragedy struck when his partner and best friend was killed by a Dallas resident while on duty. And a few years later, his brother was killed in a fight with a drug dealer in Arizona. Brown was shaken but doubled down on his career. He returned to school to finish his bachelor’s degree and went on to get his MBA. In 2005, Brown became Dallas’s assistant chief of police and served for a year as assistant city manager. By May 2010, Brown had been sworn in as the city’s police chief, only the second Black chief in Dallas history. 

Just a few weeks after he was sworn in, on Father’s Day 2010, Brown got a call. His son, David Brown Jr., had been killed by police. While high on PCP, Brown Jr. had experienced a mental breakdown and shot a man named Jeremy McMillian, who was driving in a car near Brown Jr.’s home. Brown Jr. then shot and killed police officer Craig Shaw, who had responded to the shooting, after which other officers on the force shot and killed Brown Jr.

A few days later, Brown asked to meet McMillian and Shaw’s families, even attending Shaw’s funeral, which was reportedly right after his son’s services. Later, in an interview, Brown reflected that the events of June 20, 2010, gave him “the deepest empathy for people who suffer and families with people they love who have mental illness.” Two weeks later, Brown returned to work.

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Just a few months after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida, the Dallas police received an anonymous call about an armed kidnapping on the south side of the city. When officers arrived at the home of the alleged kidnapping, Dallas resident James Harper ran out the back door. His mother later explained that Harper feared someone was breaking in. Police officer Brian Rowden shot Harper, killing him. Harper was unarmed, and adding to the injustice of the situation, the anonymous kidnapping tip ended up being false. The event would come to be known as “Dixon Circle,” for Harper’s neighborhood. 

Harper’s death catalyzed Brown’s public statement of a new slate of policing reforms to come. Brown publicly released the name of Harper’s killer, renewed his emphasis on de-escalation, promised to implement taser training and review the department’s chase policy, and stated that he would be releasing unprecedented amounts of data on officer-involved shootings to gain public trust in policing practices. He even committed to enlist the help of the FBI’s Civil Rights Office to help him implement these reforms. Per the DPD’s website, the FBI receives notifications of all police shootings, but there’s no information on the outcomes of any FBI reviews. 

Brown often credits his statement that night and his commitments to action with quelling riots that were threatening to erupt in Dixon Circle, as hundreds converged outside a nearby grocery store to protest. In an interview conducted in the months before his retirement, Brown remembered, “Without my holding a press conference by the next news cycle, it’s likely that we would’ve been Ferguson before Ferguson was Ferguson.”

John Fullinwider, cofounder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, has been organizing in the Dallas community since the 1970s and for reform within the Dallas Police Department since the 1990s. He first met Brown in the 1980s, when Brown was a new officer providing security at a local credit union. He explained, “Chief Brown is the best ambassador that a police department could ever have… He presents the good face to the police department, and he tells the story of the police department in a way that resonates with policymakers and the general public.” 

However, he and other activists say that Brown’s plans and reforms often sounded better on paper than they ended up being for members of the Dallas community.

“He’s painted this story about himself as someone who’s for police reform… He’s not,” said Walter “Changa” Higgins, an organizer and the head of the Dallas Community Police Oversight Coalition, in an interview with the Weekly. “We have a very different picture from our side in the community than the picture that he painted.”

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Holding Brown accountable was hard. He was a local, and the community was hesitant to push back against one of their own. “A lot of people knew him, he had roots, he had ties here, and he used that to his advantage. Because of that, people were less likely to attack him, because that’s just the nature of Dallas,” Higgins explained. “But people like the activists, organizers like myself, we had a really hard time getting anything done with his office.”

Decades before, when Brown was a newer officer, he did a stint with the police department’s community policing team. When he became chief, Brown made community policing a central tenet of his strategy to reform the Dallas Police Department, an effort to build trust between officers and neighborhoods that were over-policed and under-resourced. 

Terrance Hopkins, a member of the DPD at the time, remembered, “Chief Brown was instrumental in bringing community policing teams to Dallas to the point where the community just raved. I mean, they rave about our community policing program.”

Activists remember the program a bit differently. “[Brown’s idea] of what community policing was is having a ‘coffee with the cops [event],’” Dominique Alexander of the Next Generation Action Network, an organization founded by Dallas activists in the aftermath of the killings of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, explained. At these events, the Dallas Police Department officers and community members could meet over a cup of coffee to build relationships and discuss the community’s goals and concerns.

However, these efforts rarely seemed to reach the community members they were supposed to serve. “The people who are being impacted the most by bad policing, who bear the brunt of modern-day policing, don’t come to [events] like coffee with cops because they have no incentive, they have no reason to be there,” Higgins explained. As a result, according to activists, these and other community meetings came to be dominated by those who were already supporters of the police department. “It wasn’t welcoming for people who were critical of the department,” Higgins added.

Many of these programs were reportedly short-lived, and the underlying factors driving crime and violence in the communities went unaddressed. 

Activists remember the police chief engaging with and getting the support of community members such as pastors who had little experience engaging in policy discussions about policing in the area, but not those who had been working on these very issues for decades. “When it came down to meeting in a room… he would have those conversations with people who were not working on these issues. And then he’d come back to say, ‘Well, I’m already meeting with this group, and, you know, why are you not part of this group,” Higgins remembered. 

Alexander agreed, explaining, “We tried to work with Chief Brown on real policy reforms and changes to the Dallas Police Department, and every attempt at that, he came back with rejection.”

Higgins also soon found that the DPD under the leadership of Brown was not as transparent as it seemed. Brown is credited as the first police chief in Dallas to put public data about officer-involved shootings on the Dallas Open Data Portal. But soon after the portal was created, Higgins saw that the Dallas Police Department was reporting there were around a hundred officer-involved shootings from a time period spanning from 2003 to 2012. Working with an organization he had founded called Dallas Community Organizing for Change, Higgins filed a public records request for DPD’s data and saw that the numbers didn’t line up with what was being reported on the website. “According to our [public records] request when we looked at the data, we found more like 157 in that time period,” Higgins said. What Higgins found was that the Police Department was classifying deaths resulting from police interaction in such a narrow way that the numbers seemed far lower than they actually were—for example, omitting those who were shot by police and later died in custody. 

Through that public records request, Higgins also found that nearly three-quarters of all civilians who were shot and killed by Dallas police officers and around ninety percent of those involved in non-fatal officer-involved shootings were Black or Latinx. And though only about a quarter of Dallas’s population is Black, in the two decades preceding the 2012 data release, Black residents accounted for almost seventy percent of all deaths in police custody

“In none of the fatal shootings was any officer ever charged, indicted, or lost their job over it,” explained Fullinwider. “Occasionally, in a non-fatal shooting, where the victim can speak or where there was a video that showed discrepancy between the officer’s story and what happened, we did have a couple of officers charged.” 

Brown disagrees with the characterization that he didn’t do enough to hold his officers accountable for their use of force, saying in an interview with the Weekly, “During my tenure, we indicted and charged the first officer since 1972 for violating our deadly force policy. And we charged and terminated more officers than any police chief in the history of both indictments and being charged and terminated.” (The Dallas Police Department is not responsible for charging officers with crimes, which is the jurisdiction of grand juries convened by the Dallas County District Attorney. The Weekly was unable to verify his claim that he had terminated more officers than any other police chief.)

Fullinwider warned, “There’s no question that transparency becomes an exercise in PR for the police department… everything that’s in the official database is cleared by the perpetrator [of police violence], the department.”

Eventually, the DPD corrected the data on their site in line with what Higgins and other activists had found through their public records request, they said. The DPD did not respond to the Weekly’s queries by press time.

At the same time, community members felt Brown was undermining his own stated intent of transparency through policies like the “seventy-two-hour rule,” which Brown implemented in 2013. Under this rule, police were allowed to refuse to answer questions for seventy-two hours after an officer-involved shooting. Activists campaigned for the end of the policy, and Brown later publicly stated that he had ended it. Years later, when then-DPD officer Amber Guyger killed Botham Jean in his own apartment, community members were surprised to learn that the policy was still in place and that Brown had simply made the policy discretionary, rather than removing it. Eventually, Brown’s successor ended up proposing to repeal the policy for good in 2018.

Despite all this, after a large spike in 2012, officer-involved shootings did fall over the next few years—though it is difficult to read much into year-to-year data, and the numbers returned to about pre-2012 levels. And Brown was working on changing the DPD’s confrontational culture and modernizing officer education with de-escalation, taser, and chase training focused on creating time and space for officers to avoid turning to force.

Data on officer-involved shootings—all (blue) and fatal (orange)—as released by the DPD. The darkened columns show Brown’s tenure as chief. Many of his key reforms were implemented in 2012. (Kiran Misra)

But despite the new education initiatives, it was evident many officers weren’t internalizing the changes.

In June 2014, just months before Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, Dallas police officers John Rodgers and Andrew Hutchins responded to a 911 call at a home in the city. Officers had been to the home dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of times before, and this time, Shirley Harrison answered the door, explaining that her son Jason Harrison was experiencing a bipolar schizophrenic episode and that she had asked for help getting Harrison to the hospital in her call. As Harrison followed his mother out the door, playing with a screwdriver between both of his hands, officers shot him five times, twice in the back, killing him. Both officers had tasers and batons, but they neglected to use them. “Those officers were back on duty before Jason’s autopsy was even released,” remembered Fullinwider.

Just two months later, twenty-six-year-old, unarmed Andrew Gaynier was killed by off-duty officer Antonio Hudson while apparently asking a driver for directions, in violation of the policy against solo foot chases by officers that was put in place after the Dixon Circle incident. (Brown walked this policy back in 2015.) “Antonio was back on force before we got the autopsy released and is a Dallas police officer today,” Fullwinder said. “During Brown’s term, the police used deadly force more than a hundred times. And between forty and fifty people were killed… He wasn’t able to rein in his officers on the major issue of the day, which was police use of deadly force,” explained Fullinwider. “And even if they had deadly consequences, nothing happened to the officers.” 

In November 2015, the Dallas Police Department released statistics indicating that complaints of excessive force against officers were down, but the process of filing a complaint against the police in Dallas was complicated and confusing, preventing the city from accurately collecting data on citizen’s satisfaction with their encounters with police, an Associated Press report found. When Brown retired, Dallas was ranked third in the country for rate of fatal police shootings.

Fullinwider said, “Chief Brown, you give him the benefit of every doubt, he still was not able to implement [many of his changes]… His reforms did not stick.” 

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While Brown was facing pressure from community activists, he was reported to be facing even more unrest within his own police force. 

Though Brown repeatedly publicly stated that crime had been steadily decreasing during his tenure, his office had stopped recording many instances of shoplifting in its crime data, making the actual drop in crime unclear. Brown told the Weekly that he “appreciates people being skeptical” of his department’s crime classification methodology, but emphasized that the DPD had two independent audits conducted of the city’s crime statistics. The two independent audits “reveal we were significantly correct in the way we collected our crime statistics,” according to Brown.

By early 2016, overall crime in Dallas, especially homicides, was steadily increasing. In an attempt to combat the increase in violence, Brown tried to reassign hundreds of officers to high-crime neighborhoods and move more officers to the evening and night shift. According to Fullinwider, these actions were based on a fundamentally incorrect view of what drives crime. “The paradox of policing, really, is that the over-policed areas are the high crime areas, and they remain the high crime areas,” he said. 

In 2016, Brown created the Violent Crime Task Force, an attempt to bring a version of hotspot policing—utilizing, as Brown referred to them, “bundles” of technology, including surveillance cameras, license plate readers, and bait cars—to Dallas, despite the practice of hotspot policing having been found to have little value in preventing crime or making citizens feel safer. “What they do is they just flood the hotspot with police. It’s a temporary fix; the crime rate goes down for a little bit,” Fullinwider explained. (A version of Brown’s technology “bundle” idea already exists in Chicago, in the form of University of Chicago Crime Lab-staffed Strategic Decision Support Centers.)

The irregular schedules and restriction of their policing territory, combined with Brown’s high-profile firing of many officers during his tenure and the DPD’s low pay, led to a sense on the force that Brown’s strategies were preventing officers from doing their jobs. Toward the end of Brown’s tenure, officers were quitting so quickly that the department reportedly couldn’t even process the paperwork. The local Black Police Association called for Brown’s resignation. So did the Dallas Police Association and Dallas Fraternal Order of Police.

Terrance Hopkins was a member of the Black Police Association at the time and now serves as the organization’s president. He likened Brown’s relationship with his officers to that between a parent and a child, explaining that Brown often had to make decisions that were unpopular with his force for their own good. “He had to make some tough calls, and sometimes those calls are not always the calls that the officers are going to agree with,” Hopkins explained.

Hopkins characterizes the calls for Brown’s resignation as a result of personal vendettas within the force, rather than Brown’s capability as chief. “Chief Brown had fired a few people who were well-liked, popular people, police officers [with] large followings. It was ‘you did something bad to my buddy and I don’t like that’ type of stuff. But when that took place and the Black Police Association called for Brown to be fired, I can honestly tell you that that wasn’t the group as a whole,” he explained. 

Hopkins also said that morale wasn’t as low on the force as reports made it seem, recalling, “A lot of that was just played up to see if they can get the man removed. And, again, no dice.” 

He added, “[Brown] brought a very disciplinarian type of style to the department… [but] I don’t think it was any improper disciplining.” 

But activists had some concerns about Brown’s record with police discipline. “There were a lot of Black and brown officers that he was heavy-handed over punishment and terminations with, as opposed to white police officers,” Higgins noted. “If you look at the termination and disciplinary action, there’s far more for African-American and Latino officers… yeah, you’re firing officers, but you’ve terminated Black officers and you’re not touching the white guy.” A Weekly analysis of data obtained from the DPD showed that, though the change in terminations year-over-year was negligible, the amount of reprimands and suspensions that Black officers received was higher than white or Latinx officers for most of Brown’s tenure.

A few months later, when Brown rose to national fame for his response to the 2016 shooting of several DPD officers, community members were frustrated that no one seemed to be talking about the fact that thousands of people had gathered that day to protest police brutality in forces like Dallas’s. “We weren’t protesting just because Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died. People were fed up, and thousands of people came out that night because it was happening here in Dallas, every day, and it was going unnoticed, there was silence,” Alexander remembered.

“The attacks in July 2016 had the effect of throwing a blanket over criticism of the police,” Fullinwider added. While those watching around the country felt comforted by Brown’s words, many in the city felt that his comments to protesters critical of police brutality to “put an application in” to the DPD were condescending and showed a lack of understanding for their demands to radically change the way the police department operated in communities of color. 

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Listening to him talk about his plans for CPD, one gets the sense that Brown believes these changes are all within reach, with his enthusiasm and ambitious goals for reform. “I like to start off with believing you can achieve historical lows in violent crime. I think you can’t skip that step, it’s really important to set the standard really high, excellence being the standard,” he told the Weekly. “[I’m] not expecting to do the same thing and have a different result.”

Of course, Brown has his eye on Chicago’s consent decree, a court order mandating significant police reform in the city. “We’re under this consent decree as a result of decades-long patterns and practices of civil rights violations, of police violence targeted at Black, brown, and poor communities in Chicago,” explained Futterman. “[The Superintendent has] to rip off that band-aid and make both the consent decree and police accountability in Chicago a priority… and welcome and embrace oversight and scrutiny from people who’ve been most impacted by police abuse.”

In addition to aiming to achieve never-before-seen levels of community trust in policing, Brown wants to ensure that key deadlines in the consent decree process are met, something the city has struggled with in the last six months. “I feel like I’m on the clock,” Brown said. “I love the idea of the consent decree and the monitoring and oversight with the Police Board and COPA… with the goal of achieving above and beyond the requirements of the consent decree so that we are viewed independently as being transparent.” (Having independent city oversight will be new to him; Dallas just appointed its first Police Oversight Monitor this year, and the city’s Citizen Review Board, created in the 1980s, was long sidelined by officials, including Brown.)

He also wants to expand partnerships with nonprofits working in communities with CPD’s gang outreach group. “Police are much more effective when they collaborate with communities,” he said in a May interview with WBEZ, describing plans to bring police resources to the most low-income neighborhoods. However, some of these plans sound very similar to those of increasing police presence in low-income areas that Brown implemented in Dallas, which proved unpopular and, at times, ineffective.

Brown believes outreach to young people holds the key to reducing violent crime and explains that until social distancing regulations are lifted, he’s working on learning how to play the video game NBA 2K to challenge kids on the West Side to games and build relationships until these meetings can be had face to face. “That’s what parents do with their kids—they play games with them to make a connection,” Brown explained. “We all are responsible for these young people; we all have a role to play.”

He intends to lead by example, expressing that he wants his conduct and actions to provide an example for all officers on the force. But no matter how good of an example he sets, Brown still has to gain the buy-in of his officers in order to improve police accountability and comply with the consent decree. And the challenge will be steep. The new FOP president-elect, John Catanzara, is a noted critic of the decree.

Brown has also begun publicly floating the idea of rapid response units not assigned to any particular district, roaming the city to address crime spikes in certain neighborhoods. This isn’t the first time Chicago has seen this type of roving police team. A decade ago, CPD ran similar teams that were eventually shut down when officers on one of the teams were found to be committing robberies and home invasions, among other abuses.

Brown differentiates his plan by explaining that it would be focused on community engagement and combined with a community service requirement for officers to form relationships with community members outside of their role as law enforcers, something he brings with him from Dallas. Once again, Catanzara believes the idea is unrealistic.

Perhaps most ambitiously, Brown wants to bring Chicago’s homicide rates down to 300 or fewer a year, a significant decrease from the current rate of around 500 annually. Encouragingly, the homicide rate in Chicago has declined in recent years, but according to the Sun-Times, the last time Chicago’s murder rate was as low as Brown hopes for it to be was in 1957. Brown may or may not end up successful on that front. During his time in Dallas, the homicide rate fluctuated, both rising and falling during his tenure. The year Brown left office had a higher murder rate than the year he entered, but some of the intervening years experienced a decrease. 

“I’m very real and relatable to people who live on the West Side and South Side. I grew up in a similar neighborhood in Dallas; I grew up poor in a high crime area,” explained Brown. “I have this deep empathy that I’ve been able to use in my public service, and I say Chicagoans will be a beneficiary of how I view the world as related to not only violence, but connecting to people with respect and empathy.”

Brown, who was sworn in on April 22, has already been tasked with the unprecedented expectation of enforcing a statewide stay-at-home order. For many, the pandemic has laid bare the structural failures that drive rising COVID-19 death rates, crime, and poverty in Black and brown neighborhoods. Yet the city has increased its police presence in neighborhoods already hit hardest by COVID-19. Chicago is already all too familiar with the paradoxes of progressive policing. While it’s very early in Brown’s tenure, it’s clear that in order to fulfill his promises, he must face his own contradictions.

Joshua Falk contributed data analysis to this story

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Kiran Misra is a writer for the Weekly primarily covering criminal justice and policing in Chicago. She last covered issues facing people on home electronic monitoring during the pandemic in April.

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