David Brown: Caught Between Reform and a Hard Place

The Dallas police chief was hailed as a national leader, yet his own cops wanted him to quit.
by | November 2016
(AP/LM Otero)

Dallas Police Chief David Brown rose to national attention on a hot night in July, after a sniper at a protest against police violence killed five officers and wounded nine more. In the aftermath of the shooting, Brown’s no-nonsense presence, words of support and emphatic actions comforted his police department and the city of Dallas while also respecting the constitutional rights of the hundreds of people who had come out that evening to protest the police killing of an unarmed man in Minnesota the previous day.

Two months later, when Brown announced he would retire, he was hailed as a local hero, and not just for his masterful handling of the sniper shootings. As chief, Brown had embraced social media, using Facebook to release unprecedented amounts of information on officer-involved shootings. He also accelerated efforts to rethink one of the most basic tenets of policing -- how officers respond to incidents that involve the potential use of force. Brown’s push toward reforms of the Dallas Police Department attracted praise from the likes of former New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton, who had described Brown as a “consummate professional who represents some of the best progressive police leadership today.”

Not everyone saw it that way. Many people believed that Brown’s reforms, along with low salaries and extended hours for cops on the beat, had decimated morale on the force. Scores of officers had quit over the past year. The exodus was so great -- more than 40 officers resigned in the month of May -- that the department reportedly couldn’t process the paperwork quickly enough, and cops were being told they had to wait to quit.

Worse, Brown’s critics said, his reforms were curtailing cops’ ability to do their job at a crucial time for the city: Homicides have nearly doubled in Dallas in the past two years. The Dallas Police Association, the city’s major police union, had called on Brown to step down from his job, as had the local and national Fraternal Order of Police and the local chapter of the Black Police Association.

What Brown’s career -- and his surprise resignation -- shows is that it’s extremely difficult to get it right when it comes to police reform. Homicides in many cities are rising again. At the same time, a string of questionable and, in some cases, horrifying police shootings has made police reform a necessity. Brown’s story is about how one police department facing a rising homicide rate has sought to change the way its officers use force. It’s a story about real accomplishments, difficult tradeoffs and pushback from many sides. And as in so many American cities, it’s a story that begins with a shooting.

At 5 p.m. on July 24, 2012, dispatchers sent three officers to a house in the Dixon Circle neighborhood of south Dallas. A kidnapping had been reported. When they arrived, they heard yelling inside the house. They pushed in a window-mounted air conditioning unit to see into the house, where one of the officers spotted drugs and a gun on the kitchen table. He then saw four black males running out of the back of the house. One of them grabbed the gun.

The officers chased the suspects. When an officer wrestled one of the men, James Harper, to the ground and tried to cuff him, Harper struggled free. The officer says he then saw something in Harper’s front pocket. Fearing it might be a gun, he shot Harper three times.

It wasn’t a gun. Harper was unarmed.

It was a sweltering summer evening, the kind that brought everyone in Dixon Circle out from their stifling homes. Rumors spread that Harper had been shot in the back. The mood of the neighborhood turned angry. Police officers in riot gear began to deploy. Civic leaders and local clergy rushed to the scene. So did Chief Brown. At a press conference that evening, Brown explained the circumstances around the shooting and promised an independent grand jury investigation. By most accounts, Brown’s presence and promises played a role in dispersing the crowd and maintaining calm in Dallas.

Three weeks later, Brown announced a sweeping overhaul of how the department would interact with the public. He pledged to enlist the assistance of the FBI’s Civil Rights Office in officer-involved shootings and require more detailed information from officers’ “resisting arrests reports.” Brown said the department would develop a foot patrol policy to reduce the likelihood of dangerous chases. He promised to enhance Taser training and actively identify national best practices. Finally, the department did something it had never done before: It released a complete list of every officer-involved shooting in Dallas going back to 2002.

To say this represented a break with the past would be an understatement. “He took us to the creek and held us under water and made us drink,” says Deputy Chief Jeff Cotner.

But those reforms were just beginning. During this same period, the department moved forward with perhaps its most ambitious initiative: an overhaul of the way officers respond to service calls. The usual approach of modern-day policing is command and control, in which police officers are trained to exercise immediate authority over an incident -- to issue orders and make sure those orders are obeyed. Brown wanted to move ahead with a different method known as de-escalation, which trains officers to use tools that can give them more time to assess the danger of a situation before taking action.

De-escalation may sound mundane. But what it amounts to in practice is nothing less than an attempt to change a century of police practice.

Brown was lauded for his handling of the sniper attack, but he was not a popular chief among his officers. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

The best way to see de-escalation at work in Dallas is to visit the Lamar School, an old building half a mile away from Dallas police headquarters that’s now used as a training facility. On the first floor of the school one morning in September, a startling scene unfolds.

“I want my money back. Give me my money back!” one man yells.

“What the f—, man,” the other says, as the first man moves toward him, looking as threatening as he sounds.

Two police officers, alerted to the altercation, approach hurriedly, hands reaching toward their handguns. When the officers are about 12 feet from the two men, the man who wants his money spins toward them, a knife raised in his hand. Both officers yell at him to drop the knife. When he doesn’t, they open fire. The would-be assailant crumples to the ground.

“Whoa!” yells a bystander who has pulled out his cellphone to capture the scene.

The heated argument is, of course, staged. It’s part of an effort to change the way officers respond to dangerous incidents. Law enforcement officers in Texas are required to complete 40 hours of training every two years. Beginning in the late 1990s, Dallas included a reality-based training program as part of its core in-service education curriculum. Three years ago, the department revamped reality-based training to incorporate two newer concepts: de-escalation and procedural justice.

The officers’ response to the first scenario -- shooting the man with the knife -- was appropriate, says Sgt. Anthony Greer, one of the sergeants supervising the Lamar School training. When police undergo training, most talk about a 30-foot zone of safety. Within that zone, officers who face a potential assailant wielding a knife or other blunt weapon are justified in using force, including lethal force.

More recently, however, policing experts have begun to discourage departments from thinking about using the 30-foot rule to determine whether the use of force is reasonable. One of the goals of de-escalation training is to provide ways for officers to make a decision about how or even whether to enter this danger zone. The tools they can use are time, distance and, if necessary, cover to de-escalate a situation.

If officers can be given more time, says Greer, then they have more opportunities to make good decisions. Distance works too. “If the suspect is over there, hey, we don’t necessarily need to approach them because the closer we get the more likely it is that some type of force may have to be used,” he says. The third variable, taking cover,  is another way to gain time to better assess the situation.

The next training exercise at Lamar School gives officers a chance to practice using these skills. This time, when the exercise goes “hot,” two officers turn to face three men. The guy in the middle is a big man, holding a pipe. The men on each side of him are stepping back, but one has a gun tucked into his waistband. There’s a large file cabinet to the right of one of the responding officers. The other officer ducks behind it and calls on the men to stand still. His partner points his Taser at the man with the gun -- a red laser dances across the man’s chest -- but the officer doesn’t pull the trigger. With the laser clearly visible, the other officer comes out from cover. The officers now seem to have the men’s attention.

Exercise over. The first officer is praised for retreating and seeking cover. The second officer receives a thumbs up for pulling his Taser rather than his handgun. The trainer also gives the officers high marks for not instructing the man with the gun to put it down. His explanation: If you tell a man to put his gun down you are, in effect, telling him to reach for his gun. This approach about a gun in the possession of a potential shooter represents a notable break with the past.

In another exercise, two officers respond to a call about a suspicious man who appears to be casing a building. Well before they get close to the man, the officers call out a greeting and say why they’re there. The man bristles. “I bought this building,” he says. “I’m the landlord. I’m going to fix it up.” The officers explain again that they got a call about suspicious activity and were concerned about it. The man calms down. A few minutes later, the officers are on their way.

The training sergeant praises the officers for explaining why they were questioning the man. That part of the encounter -- stopping to explain -- is a critical part of an approach to engagement known as procedural justice. It’s rooted in research about people’s encounters with the court system. That research found that satisfaction and compliance with a court proceeding depended not on the outcome (did they win or lose?) but on whether the process was explained and whether participants felt they had had their say. In recent years, police departments have sought to bring similar techniques to police work. “It used to be, ‘Hey, I am the police. You are going to do what I tell you to do, and if you don’t, I am going to ask you one more time and then I am going to make you do it,’” says Greer.

What the Dallas Police Department is teaching now is a dramatic break with past practice. The time/distance/cover approach allows police officers to dictate what they are going to do. “What we are looking for,” Greer says, “is a peaceful solution to the situation. It’s not necessarily, ‘You do what I want you to do.’” Instead, “it’s, ‘I want this to end peacefully.’ That’s what we are emphasizing.”

Brown’s reforms have met with some success. Complaints about the Dallas police have dropped by more than 80 percent between 2005 and 2015. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Brown’s reforms achieved some significant successes. Over the past three years, officer-involved shootings in Dallas have fallen sharply -- from 10 in 2014 to five in 2015 to none in the first half of 2016. Complaints fell too, by more than 80 percent between 2005 and 2015.

Despite these successes, Brown was not a popular chief. Dallas’ powerful police union, the Dallas Police Association, complained about Brown’s management style -- part of the basis for their call for his resignation. The local Black Police Association echoed these complaints.

Brown’s reforms also had unintended consequences. Telling officers to take greater care to prevent or defuse possible confrontations means officers will take more time. That, in turn, delays police response times in high-crime neighborhoods, which feeds the perception that police don’t care about communities of color. Critics argue that Brown’s initiatives, along with his unwillingness to press the city council for more officers, has contributed to the “de-policing” of the city.

“There has been a ‘Ferguson effect’” in Dallas, says Deputy Chief Malik Aziz, referring to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Aziz, who is chairman of the national Black Police Association, says that police officers in Dallas “don’t patrol as aggressively as they once did. They don’t tend to engage themselves in situations where they once did.”

But Brown wasn’t just villified by those who said his reforms went too far. He was also attacked by others who said he didn’t do nearly enough. Brown attracted staunch criticism from a new generation of activists loosely affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the most outspoken groups has been Mothers Against Police Brutality. It’s led by Collette Flanagan, whose 25-year-old son was shot and killed by police in 2013. She notes what she sees as a failure of reform: Since 2001, 60 unarmed men have been killed by Dallas police officers, yet not a single officer has been indicted.

For John Fullinwider, a leading Dallas figure in the ongoing protests about police brutality, Brown “has a reputation as a reformer. But this police department has not been reformed.” He points to two fatal shootings in August 2014 -- one of a white kid who was acting in an aberrant way but was unarmed, the other of a Latino kid in a domestic dispute who had a knife and was shot when he didn’t follow police orders to put it down.

Activists in Dallas want deeper policy changes. At the top of their list is a special independent prosecutor, appointed by the local U.S. attorney, to investigate fatal police shootings. They also want regular drug testing and psychological evaluations for officers, compensation for victims, body cameras for all officers, deadly force training approved and authorized by the U.S. Department of Justice, federal investigations of civil rights violations by police officers, and a federal database of problem officers.

Attorney Kim Cole, who works with the activist group Next Generation Action Network, sees Brown’s reforms as little more than window dressing. Consider a recent decision by Brown to end the policy that allowed police officers involved in a fatal shooting to wait 72 hours before giving a statement to police investigators. Most saw this as another win for reform. Cole sees it in a different light -- as a way for police to avoid testifying at all. “As long as there is no accountability, there will never be any responsibility,” says Cole. “The African-American community is being terrorized by law enforcement because we know there are times when we can’t reach for our wallets without the risk of dying.”

Attorney Kim Cole, center, views Brown’s reforms as window dressing. “As long as there is no accountability, there will never be any responsibility.” (AP/Claudia Lauer)

It would be easy to conclude that being attacked simultaneously for going too far on accountability and transparency and for not going far enough is a sign that you’re actually doing something right. But Brown’s struggles suggest another lesson as well: Police reform is hard. Often, it entails unintended consequences. De-escalation and relationship-building take time. That requires more resources. And in Dallas, as in most every other city, additional resources aren’t easy to come by. During the recession of 2008, Dallas allowed its police force to shrink by attrition and retirement. That seemed like a reasonable decision when crime was falling. But in 2014, homicides started to rise, and that has continued. The department has attempted to compensate by moving officers from desks back onto the streets. But it’s telling that in the aftermath of the July sniper shootings, Brown sought to use his new popularity for one thing: He asked the city to approve funding to hire 549 additional officers as quickly as possible.

The request stemmed in part from the effectiveness of having more officers to do basic police work. New York City’s crime reduction “miracle” in the early 1990s was made possible by the roughly 6,000 new officers Mayor David Dinkins was able to hire through the state-supported “Safe Streets” program. The crime decline in Los Angeles in the mid-aughts likewise followed the hiring of hundreds of new police officers.

But Brown’s request also reflected the additional hours his reforms require. He found few backers. Union officials argued that the city should focus instead on retaining existing officers by increasing pay. City council members questioned whether the city of Dallas could afford to spend more than it already does on public safety. Eventually, the city committed to increasing the size of the force by just 100 officers.

On Sept. 1, Brown, who had been with the force for 33 years and its chief for six, stunned Dallas by announcing via Twitter that he was retiring. He would do so without securing the additional officers he so clearly wanted for his department. “Chief Brown, we are sure going to miss you,” Dallas regional Chamber of Commerce President Dale Petroskey told him and the crowd of civic and business leaders at a luncheon later that month. “Thanks for being a rock and a rock star. We needed you.”

In fact, Dallas -- and other cities contending with rising homicides and protests against police brutality -- do need someone who can make the case that Brown, ultimately, could not. Reform is vital. But the real solution to the problem of police, paradoxically, may well be more police.

*This story has been updated to accurately reflect the timing of two fatal shootings in August 2014.