Police Supt. Brown on Chicago crime, his mother’s recent death and the virtues of singing off-key

Consider how police officers run toward danger, Brown said, though “it is off-key to run toward danger.”

SHARE Police Supt. Brown on Chicago crime, his mother’s recent death and the virtues of singing off-key

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown at Simeon High School on Sept. 24, 2021.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

When he took charge of the Chicago Police Department in spring 2020, Police Supt. David Brown promised “moonshot goals.”

Today, he is fighting a brutal upsurge in violent crime.

Last Monday, I was eager to hear Brown defend his record at a speech to the City Club of Chicago.

Shootings and murders are up, the superintendent said, and “that is unacceptable.” But he offered signs of progress, such as the creation of a citywide Community Safety Team and the CPD’s attempt to take a “holistic approach” to problem. The department, he said, is striving to provide residents with “wrap-around” services from city agencies, community-based and social service organizations and churches to build resources and trust.

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Brown said he is boosting services to LGBTQ+ and homeless people and ramping up training and mental health services for police officers. His team is also taking record numbers of guns off the street, solving more homicides and making a dent in carjackings. 

Yet these remain “difficult times,” he acknowledged.

On Wednesday, five people were injured in the crossfire of a shootout between motorists in the Fulton River District. From Wednesday night to Thursday morning, there were three separate shootings on Chicago area expressways.

Brown recently lost his mother, Norma Jean Brown, who died in August at age 81. He confessed he was a “mama’s boy,” and her death has been hard on him.

“I love my mother to death. Miss her dearly,” he said. “My mother would sing solos in a church choir, and my mother sang perfectly.”

“Off-key,” he added, to laughter from City Club audience. “My mother couldn’t ever hit a note correctly in any of her solos, and she loved singing Aretha Franklin gospel songs, which are very difficult to sing.”

As a boy of 10, Brown said, he cringed “at every note she hit.” But now at the age of 60, Brown said he can recall his mother’s singing only with affection, especially the way she sang Franklin’s “How I Got Over.”

How I got over (How I got over)

How I got over (How I got over)

My soul look back and wonder how I got over

It’s about “trusting in my faith and loving others,” Brown explained.

There is a lesson in this, the superintendent said, that has guided him in his work. Sometimes, he said, “you have to do some off-key things to get through a difficult time.” 

Consider, for example, he said, how police officers willingly place themselves in mortal danger to protect us.

“It is off-key to run toward danger,” Brown said. “Most of us in this room, if shots rang out right now, we’d run away from gunfire. Not toward gunfire.”

The Chicago Police Department is mourning the loss Officer Ella French, who was shot to death Aug. 7 during a traffic stop in West Englewood.

“It is off-key to lose one of our brave police officers, Ella French, from gun violence,” Brown said, “and yet recover an additional 1,000 guns (off the streets) since her death.”

And “if our founding fathers weren’t living their lives off-key, we would still be speaking the King’s English,” he declared. “If the greatest generation in our country, our World War II generation, didn’t act off-key, God knows what the world would be like.”

During the civil rights movement, Brown said, young people were “off-key” when they organized and protesting racial injustice, against the advice of their parents. If they had not been so “off-key,” he said, “we would still be segregated today.”

This was Brown’s appeal:

“I would just encourage you all to sing off-key, ‘Amen.’ Take some time to do things in the service of others without expecting anything in return. That’s how you get over. That’s how you make it through a difficult time.”

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