David Brown brings big city experience and a remarkable personal story to Chicago’s top cop job
This is a cop who has seen both sides of the coin, which he says has made him wiser. We expect it would.
On Thursday afternoon, just hours after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced her pick to fill the job of police superintendent in our city, a young man was shot and killed while sitting in a car on the West Side.
Five hours later, another young man was killed on the West Side in a drive-by shooting.
And by midnight, three more young men were in the hospital, all having been shot on the West Side.
One of the more discouraging stories of the coronavirus crisis, at least in Chicago, is that none of the measures taken to contain the pandemic, such as ordering everybody to stay home, have done much to tamp down violent crime. Shootings continue to plague the West and South sides.
And once the pandemic has passed, we have to wonder — forgive our pessimism — whether violent crime in the city will grow only worse. People will be rushing outside and letting off steam. The weather will be warmer. Unemployment will be higher. Corner drug dealers will be doing more business.
The big job for Chicago’s next top cop will get even bigger.
Top cops get tripped up
Lightfoot’s choice for police superintendent is a retired Dallas police chief, David Brown, who would seem to have the professional experience, values, priorities and remarkable personal story to do the job well. Confirmation of his appointment by the City Council should be swift.
That said, this town has a way of tripping up police chiefs, as two of the last three, Jody Weis and Garry McCarthy — both “outsiders” like Brown — can attest. Or they trip over themselves, as Eddie Johnson, the consummate CPD careerist, managed to do.
The more Chicago can pull together — from neighborhood activists to the Fraternal Order of Police to the business community — and support Brown, the better his chances of success.
Brown faces a set of goals that many Chicagoans have argued are in conflict, but which should be seen as mutually reinforcing: driving down crime rates, building trust between the police and alienated communities, improving rank and file officers’ morale and pushing the policing reforms demanded by a court-monitored consent decree.
Brown’s professional strength is his experience in running a big city police department that has struggled with many of the same challenges we have seen here. The Dallas Police Department, serving a city of 1.3 million, has had to contend with racial tensions, accusations of excessive force and a disgruntled police union.
Sent in a robot to kill
Brown was the chief in Dallas in 2016 when five police officers were killed in an ambush. Brown ended the confrontation by sending in a robot armed with explosives and blowing up the shooter.
Brown was widely praised for that, but he was also excoriated by critics. They accused him of executing the shooter without benefit of a trial.
In a Time magazine interview a year later, Brown defended that decision, which to our thinking needed no defending. “I weighed how to end the siege without losing another officer or citizens,” he said. “I’d make the same decision.”
Brown earned a reputation in Dallas for supporting police practices aimed at reducing distrust between the police and minority residents. He discouraged chasing suspects in cars, equipped officers with body cameras and revised the department’s training on the use of lethal force. Officers, he felt, were pulling their guns too often.
For all of that, or perhaps because of it, Brown was not beloved by rank and file officers, which likely was a factor in his 2017 retirement. Two Dallas police officer groups formally called for his dismissal in 2016 after he announced a plan to put 600 more officers on overnight shifts to fight surging crime rates.
That sounds to us like bold and practical police work, though it would have been horribly disruptive for the officers involved. Brown eventually backed off.
But we suppose it wouldn’t go over any better among cops in Chicago, where the police union and City Hall can’t even agree on a new contract after almost three years.
Shaped by family tragedy
Brown’s other strength might be his personal story. This is a cop who has seen both sides of the coin, which he says has made him wiser. We expect it would.
In 1988, one of Brown’s patrol partners was killed in the line of duty. In 1991, his younger brother, a crack addict, was killed in an argument over drugs. In 2010, his son, David Brown Jr., who reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder, shot and killed two people — one of them a police officer — before he himself was fatally shot.
Speaking to Time magazine about this, Brown said it gave him the “deepest empathy” for people who suffer from mental illness, and for their families.
“You name shooting after shooting where we’ve had multiple people killed and those suspects have a mental illness,” he said. “And yet unless you are affluent, there’s no capacity to deal with the mentally ill.”
What kind of cop is David Brown? Chicago’s about to find out, but this much is clear: He’s more than a resume.
For the sake of every Chicagoan and every police officer, we wish the new superintendent well.
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