7 Questions with David Brown

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Harrison Barnes, Forward / Dallas Mavericks - The Players' Tribune

Basketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill for college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky in my life to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits, and outlooks on the world. Interacting with different people with different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive change in their communities.

In that spirit, I’m doing a series of interviews with people who I admire from afar. I want to get to know them better and share our conversations here.

My latest interview is with one of Dallas’s most recognized and respected people, the former police chief David Brown.

Chief Brown is Dallas through and through. He grew up here, he became a cop here in his early 20s. He patrolled some of the same streets he’d grown up on. Then, more than twenty years later, he rose to police chief, where his efforts at reforming the department received both praise and criticism. Before he retired last year, Chief Brown led Dallas through one of its most trying periods, after five police officers were killed in July 2015. In fact, the first time I met Chief Brown was at the memorial service for the fallen officers, only days after I moved to Dallas.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which felt like the right time to share my conversation with Chief Brown. This year is actually the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. Since I was a kid, I was in awe of Dr. King’s commitment to civil disobedience and human dignity. He made such a massive contribution to this country, but as we all can see, there’s still a lot of work left to be done.

And if you’re in Dallas this weekend, check out all the events going on. Dallas is known for having one of the biggest MLK Day parades in the country.


Harrison Barnes

At our dinner a few months ago, you described Dallas as a “big small town.” Can you expand a little bit on what you meant by that?

David Brown

Dallas is neighborhood-centric. You can be in an affluent neighborhood and have a totally different lifestyle and worldview as one of the poor areas, like where I grew up, where you have fewer services and fewer opportunities. So each neighborhood has a different personality across the city. It’s a blend of affluence and poverty. And the transportation system is not as supportive as you’d find in maybe other major cities because everybody drives cars. So it’s really about the neighborhood — many people don’t leave their neighborhood and hardly ever cross over to another part of town. But it’s the same city.

Harrison

You grew up in Dallas. Tell me something that people would be surprised to know about this city.

David

It still struggles to come together around race and economic class. And much of it is from a historical perspective — it goes back generations. Economically, Dallas has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the country — real estate’s been on fire. But it’s still got this wound in its history that it continues to struggle with.

Harrison

Over this summer you and I partnered up to put on a camp in Dallas with the Police Athletic League (PAL). You’ve always championed PAL, which is described as “a program for Dallas kids and use educational, athletic, and recreational activities to create trust and understanding between police officers and the community.” What’s the story of how it got created?

David

There’s a history from the 1980s of the Dallas Police Department’s Police Athletic League, but it was an unfunded effort, so it went away in the ‘80s. I brought it back when I became chief in 2010. It’s such a great program — because it’s a positive interaction between people and police. I don’t know how many times I almost got fired over doing it, because there’s a culture of policing that goes, This is waste of time to have an officer interacting with young people like this. People who didn’t like it, typically the unions, would constantly go to politicians to try to get me fired over the program. The attitude I had was: You’re gonna have to fire me for it. I’m never getting rid of it. And if you did, it would be worthwhile to get fired over PAL. It was such an important, critical program that I was willing to put my career at stake over doing it.

Harrison

The relationship between police and African-Americans has probably always been strained. You were a police officer for over two decades. Over your career, what has improved, what has gotten worse, and what have taken away from that?

David

What has improved is that there is more diversity in policing, especially compared to when I started back in 1983, which is 34 years ago now. But what we still struggle with is challenging the culture of policing — challenging it to reform itself. And the difficulty is, as I alluded to before, police leaders have to put their careers on the line oftentimes. It is a very difficult thing to try to reform policing for the betterment of the community. Often what happens is that police departments get in trouble and then the Department of Justice has to come in and a judge has to order the reform. But to try to make the reform happen before you get ordered, you have to fight tooth and nail and your career is at stake. But I feel like I owed the community that I came from. I never forgot where I came from. Putting my career at risk to be a community-oriented police department — I’m proud of that legacy.

Harrison

At our dinner a few months ago, you talked about being a beat cop in your neighborhood that you grew up in, right around here. What’s your definition of community policing?

David

It’s being transparent, holding officers accountable, and creating positive interactions with the community, especially with young people of color. We want to impact their view of the police officers — from a negative to a positive. Without any of those components, you don’t have community policing. So you can interact with young people all you want, but if the cops are not doing the job the right way, or not being held accountable, you’re a hypocrite. Nothing really changes in the way they treat people in the community. And when officers do make mistakes — and you try to hide it and not be transparent about it — the conspiracy is always the worst thing. What are you hiding? So you have to be the first to admit your mistakes, in policing. Don’t let the media make you say what you did wrong — when you know a mistake is being made, be the first to say you made a mistake, hold officers accountable, and create interactions that are positive with the community. In my opinion, that’s the definition of community policing.

Harrison

I’ve heard that you have a reputation as a tough leader. Why do think people say that, and who did you learn that from when you were younger?

David

My mother. I’m a momma’s boy, so I’m not so tough. But I am committed to what I believe in. You don’t have a long tenure as a police chief in this country. The average tenure is three years, so you’re on borrowed time. If you believe in something, you better get to doing it, and you better be committed to it. So if that comes across as tough, so be it. But I grew up poor in a tough neighborhood, so I like to believe that the neighborhood that raised me instilled some toughness in me — to not quit, not give up. So I don’t mind critics. I think they can teach you a lot. If they had been saying I was soft, I would probably have a problem with that. I’m not soft. So I don’t mind them conveying that, Yeah, I was pretty committed and I was tough-minded on the principles that I believe in.

Harrison

There are probably going to be a variety of people who will read this — from athletes to parents, maybe some kids, maybe some police officers — who want to get involved. What would you say to anyone who says, Clearly there’s a divide between police and African-Americans but what can we do about it?

David

First thing is: things won’t change unless you get involved. The way our country’s democracy works requires involvement to make any kind of significant change. The history of our country is the best prescription — what the civil rights leaders did. They were young people — they were 20-something years old. They protested, but they didn’t only protest. They got involved. They got elected to office. They put some skin in the game. They challenged the courts. If you don’t get involved, you won’t significantly change the things you are frustrated about that the things that our government is deficient in, particularly policing. It requires all of us to be the change that we want to see. Like sports, or anything in life, if you’re not fully committed to it, you shouldn’t expect anything to be different. Athletes know this better than anybody. The fans in the stands cheering and booing don’t impact what happens on the field. That’s the same thing with police-community relationships. Just protesting and voicing your opinion is one step, but until you get on the field, passing and shooting, tackling and blocking, don’t expect touchdowns and playoffs and championships. It takes a commitment to make any kind of significant change. And I just challenge everyone to get involved.

Harrison

Thank you, Chief Brown. I appreciate the time, and hope to see you around Dallas soon.

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