A Police Chief Reflects: ‘Handcuffs Are Not the Solution’

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Many  people see today’s tense debate over policing in simplistic terms: a problem of “us and them.” Until he retired last year, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has been at the center of the debate, winning national admiration for his actions during and after the July 7, 2016 tragedy in which a lone sniper killed five Dallas police officers and left nine injured.

At the height of that tragedy, which represented the biggest loss of life for law enforcement since 9/11, Brown made clear that community residents and police shared the goal of public safety. The “divisiveness between police and citizens” must end, he said then.

Chief Brown has expanded on that point in his forthcoming book, Called To Rise, where he draws on his 33-year-career in law enforcement to develop a vision for the next generation of policing, and opens a window into the technical, logistical and often traumatic realities of a job that few civilians understand.

In a conversation with TCR’s Isidoro Rodriguez, Brown discussed why he believes the “tough-on-crime” approach doesn’t work, why modern police chiefs sometimes have to risk their jobs to provide leadership, and how his own personal tragedy influenced his approach to policing.

The Crime Report: One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was your candor. Should there be more transparency between law enforcement and communities?

David Brown: I think that’s really one of the major things in the book for me. I am a very private person, but I felt the urgency to tell the story and reveal my personal life. It’s almost to propose how police should become more transparent, more revealing, more open, more willing to discuss all the flaws, [as well as] the good stuff that we do, and the challenges that we face, so that people can really make their own assessment. We need more information, rather than having just snapshots of information.

TCR: What prevents that type of transparency?

 DB:  You’re first fighting an internal debate with the culture of policing, because it’s just been so tried and true to be kind of secret. Not necessarily in a villainous way, but you convince yourself that if you tell the public everything, it might jeopardize a case or an outcome, it might slant a jury pool, or it just might expose our flaws. At the same time, because I’m an inner-city kid, Dallas is my home town, I have a real sense of obligation to the community, to be more of a public servant and community-policing advocate, and to be as revealing and transparent as I can. I truly understand the community’s sentiments and how the issue is wrapped in race and inequality. I really understand, as a Black American male, the community concerns, and I fully understand the policing concerns.

TCR: You describe in the book how, as a young officer, you experienced an initial reticence towards community policing and its supposed benefits. Now you’re an advocate. What changed your mind?

 DB:  I understand how people may not get it initially, including people who are policy makers. I [came] into the profession without a full range of knowledge and experience on what the shortcomings of traditional policing does to the community. I fully understand, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions wanting to revert (to tough sentencing guidelines). He doesn’t have that experience, so it just seems like the way to fight crime is to just lock people up. We know through research and experience that we weren’t any safer when we are in a “lock them up, tough-on-crime culture.” But human nature sometimes drives us to make decisions not based on facts. People generally sense that if you put a bad guy in jail, they’ll be safer, when that is absolutely not the case.

You have to find a way to peel back the layers, and find root causes, and mitigate the root causes where they occur, whether that’s mental illness, drug addiction, job training, opportunities in the community, or economic development. You have to find those root causes to have a really clean sense of what would make us safer, what impacts these communities. We criminalize poverty, we criminalize mental illness, we criminalize drug addiction, and those are treatable things that we can resolve with policy. Handcuffs are not the solution.

TCR: What do you say to skeptics who feel that community policing doesn’t work, that it actually detracts from real police work and doesn’t yield results?

DB: That was my life. Our police unions wanted to fire me because what I believed differed from their beliefs. You’re not going to convince people entrenched in their beliefs. Police leaders have to be principled; they have to understand what the data shows, what the impact on the community is, and not just be there to appease the beat cop. They have to be able to put their job on the line (by imposing their) will on the police culture.

Many police are stuck in the idea “let’s put them all in jail and let God sort them out.” But the realities are that we don’t have enough jail beds to arrest our way out of crime. There’s bipartisan support for the idea that mass incarceration was not effective. But you get political and you move away from what we all know based on facts. That’s where leadership comes into play, not so much what you say, but how you lead.

TCR:   Many police departments across the country, including New York City, are rolling out new training programs for recruits and veteran officers. Is that part of the solution to developing more community-conscious policing? 

DB:  The history of policing is you don’t train enough because you don’t have the time. You have to commit the time of your department, which often means more dollars towards the police department and more officers, so that you can have the basic level of staffing needed to have enough people to both train and answer the demands of the job. You have to be committed to more training. [Until recently] it’s been training when you can, not necessarily as a prerequisite of the job.

Secondly, the type of training is also important. We are an increasingly diverse country and our departments are increasingly less diverse. It’s more and more difficult to recruit people of color. So what you have to do is immerse your officers in different cultures. That is a template for community policing: communicating and slowing things down, rather than rushing in and making it an athletic event, where you think you have to do things right away. That will make everyone safer. Don’t get into quick-draw interactions where the fastest to the trigger survives. That won’t always be in your favor.

TCR: You write that as a young officer dealing with the traumas of the job, it was sometimes necessary roll with the punches, to suffer in silence. Are there better ways for police officers to handle stress?

DB: There’s a lot of discussion about this particular area of policing, which I would describe it as well-being. Police need coping mechanisms in dealing with traumatic experiences, whether it’s investigating homicides, suicides, tragic deaths like car wrecks, or the adrenaline of chasing a suspect one minute and the next minute you’re at a very low frequency interaction. You may be involved in a life-or-death shooting and then you’re expected to get right back to work and act normal.

Psychology and psychiatry (suggest) that’s not the healthiest type of emotional environment. You need to decompress your emotions so that your reactions are not on a video of you not doing what society expects you to do. If there’s a police-involved shooting where an officer acts out of character, and doesn’t have any previous misconduct, we all wonder why. But it may point to a problem with the well-being of the officer, their emotional health. It’s not an excuse for misconduct, but it may be a reason for it. And if we diagnose it correctly, the outcome is that officers are safer and citizens are safer.

TCR: The idea that police are human too can be a hard sell to people in some communities.

 DB:  Police are very human and fragile and they have the same reactions you would. Even though they have specialized training, it doesn’t take away their frailty or humanity. That’s why I tell my story. I’m very revealing on the effects of the job on me and my family, and all the tragedy that I’ve dealt with. I want to un-layer the superman/superwoman characterization of police officers because this is a false narrative. Many times, it’s police officers who believe in this idea and take it on, and then the public believes, and they take it on.

The effect of trying to be that character has been detrimental to the profession and detrimental to the public. People need to know that it was not just a white officer who did something that shocked us. This was a human being likely in emotional crisis. That’s not to defend explicit reactions and bias in officers who shouldn’t be cops because they have a character flaw. These are the officers who make a mistake because of some of these other traumatic reasons. Rather than making excuses, let’s try to understand it so we can recruit for it, treat it, diagnose it, and keep these officers from making those kinds of mistakes.

TCR: Your own personal brush with trauma and tragedy was the catalyst for your position on mental health in this country. You lost a son, a brother and a former partner to violenceHow should policing  evolve to meet the challenge of dealing with emotionally disturbed and mentally ill individuals?

 DB: The untreated mentally ill are a driving force for the crisis in our country. The active-shooter dynamic is mental health untreated and unrecognized. It is the mentally ill who get access to a high powered rifle. In Sandy Hook, in Dallas, this was the untreated mentally ill. It’s the scourge of our country. We can make ourselves safer if we were able to get funding and policies that support treatment for the mentally ill.

Because I experienced tragedy, I feel strongly that I need to be an advocate and marry myself to other advocates who see how this has driven our country in the wrong direction when it comes to gun safety, mental health treatment, community policing policy, and our prisons. Our prisons have to be some of the largest mental health facilities in the country. That’s not who we are. We can’t criminalize mental illness. It’s neither effective nor is it making us safer. This is a have-to-do moment and I hope the discussions on my upcoming book tour can reveal some of that and maybe push some policy makers to move the bar up a little bit further in this area.

TCR: You address the issue of police militarization in your book. For many people that brings up images of military-grade hardware at protests like those after the shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Is that what American policing should be?

DB: Using Ferguson as an example, I think everyone in the leadership community of policing sees the militarization of that department, at that particular protest, as inappropriate across the board. Inappropriate use of tear gas, inappropriate use of sniper rifles, inappropriate use of the equipment. Everyone sees that, but policing has been painted with a broad brush, as if everyone does that, and that’s just not accurate.

We all see that when we’re rescuing people from an active shooter with a high-powered rifle you need an armored car to rescue people. If we’re running drug warrants at very hazardous locations, and the drug dealers have high-powered rifles, we need extra ballistic protection because those dealers are likely to kill us to protect their dope and money. I just like to talk in more specific rather than broad terms when it comes to militarization and the equipment needed to rescue officers and rescue citizens, versus the images from Ferguson and other protests where I can specifically say that’s inappropriate.

TCR: You describe how, as chief, you were constantly racing to get ahead of whatever story the press was pushing. Does coverage of policing need to change?

DB: I think the media is just responding to the public’s shortened attention spans. They’re trying to be quick and short, and trying to hit the highlights. But I think the media can broaden or balance their coverage and still meet the public’s demands for more information. Instead of looping negative video for an entire news cycle, they could loop the positive interactions police are having. But no network shows do that. You never see a positive, life-saving moment where an officer dives into the water to rescue a baby, risks his life in a burning house to rescue a family.

There’s hardly ever a panel discussion or town-hall format for positivity in the policing environment. You never see communities in a town-hall setting talking about why they love their cops. I just reject the idea that bad news sells. People say this happens because people want to hear bad news. But the media can get high ratings if they tell a balanced story in a short format. They just need to make the effort to do it.

TCR: A recent poll revealed widespread dissatisfaction among officers in the NYPD. Around the country, there has been an increase in resignations and a decrease in applications. Is this a trend that worries you?

 DB: You get what you pay for in attitude, performance and quality. I wish our cops could throw 100-mile-an hour fastballs. I wish they had a 40-inch vertical leap. I wish they could throw the ball 70 yards, because that is where our money goes. What we prefer is what the public is willing to pay for. Cops are underpaid, but city budgets don’t compensate them. And there’s a pension crisis.

It’s just not a stable environment for compensation. Millennials see this. It’s really difficult to recruit into this profession, not only due to (inadequate) compensation, but because when they do a good job it’s not appreciated in the way that, for example, sports entertainment is. Between the two, which is more important to society?  The best players in sports entertainment are appreciated and compensated. The best cops in this country aren’t appreciated, and they’re compensated no better than the worst cops.

When you see a cop you ought to say thank you for their service and sacrifice. You ought to advocate to your local representatives in your city to pay cops more. You’re highly likely to have a better-quality police officer as a result. You’re saying how you feel about them. When the one percent or two percent of cops make a mistake, they’re battered, (but) when cops do a good job they’re not treated any differently in the public space.

That’s why there’s such high dissatisfaction in this profession and why it’s so difficult to recruit and retain cops. It’s reached a peak, a boiling point, of cops reconsidering whether this is the type of profession that’s healthy for them, and whether they’re going to be compensated in the ways that the job demands.

TCR:  Racial tensions are a big factor in the debate about policing today. How can these tensions be addressed?

DB: It’s a two-sided coin, and it’s complex. The protesters will never create change in the ways they want. If you look at our history, it’s tells a consistent story that protest alone doesn’t create significant change. It was activism, participation, voting, becoming public servants, running for public office, getting elected, being a part of the government policy making, and full engagement in our democracy. That’s what they’re missing: participation. That’s what our democracy requires to create change.

On the policing side, until local democracies push the agenda for police transformation it won’t happen. That includes the policing leadership, the local aldermen, the city councilmen, the city managers, and mayors who are elected as a representative government. You can’t have one without the other. Significant change has to come through the local democracy, and the way we vote on the local level right now is not enough to create change. Only 10%-15% vote for aldermen, for mayors, for councilmen; that leaves 85%-90%, particularly in communities of color, sitting on the sidelines. They’re dissatisfied but they’re not taking the steps to fully participate through voting and becoming part of policy-making to create change.

That is what Black Lives Matter and the policing culture are missing. They can’t come together without that full participation in our democracy. You want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

This conversation has been condensed and edited. Chief  Brown’s book, “Called to Rise, written with Michelle Burford, with be published tomorrow. Isidoro Rodriguez is a New York-based staff writer for The Crime Report, and is studying for a degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He welcomes comments from readers.

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