'Called To Rise': Dallas Police Chief On Overcoming Racial Division | KERA News

'Called To Rise': Dallas Police Chief On Overcoming Racial Division

Jun 6, 2017

Last July, the country's attention was focused on Dallas after a peaceful protest against police shootings of black men turned violent.

A single gunman shot and killed five officers. He injured nine more, as well as two protesters. After he was killed and the incident was over, Dallas Police Chief David Brown commanded the nation's attention.

At a news conference Brown said we're asking cops to do too much — to address problems he says policing was never meant to solve. And when asked about protesters, Brown famously told them they could help by becoming cops. Applications for the police force soared.

Brown has since retired as Dallas police chief and has written a book about his life, Called To Rise: A Life in Faithful Service to the Community That Made Me. He tells NPR's Robert Siegel about what was going through his mind when he addressed his city and the nation after the shootings.

"I'm running on fumes, and so I'm pretty raw, so this is kind of my belief system that I'm expressing — particularly to the protesters, to get involved in ways where they put some skin in the game beyond protest, and put an application in, because that's what I did as a young man," Brown says. "I'm sensing that this is a symbol, a moment, for the country around policing — in that we can either rise and come together, or we can continue to be divided in our positions and not listen to one another."

Brown says he didn't always trust the police, having developed a worldview from his parents and grandparents, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, "that the police are not your friend."

Brown's experiences growing up make it remarkable that he did not become a casualty of his environment. His mother essentially raised Brown and his siblings alone; his brother became a crack addict and was murdered in an argument over drugs.

Brown says he owes his success to his mother, who put him and his older brother in a parochial school when they began their studies. He also says that, when it came to drugs, he didn't face the same temptations as his younger brother.

"The drug of choice for experimentation during my generation was marijuana," Brown says. "It's not addictive when you try. The drug of choice for my younger brother when he was of age for experimentation was crack, and you're addicted when you try, for the rest of your life."

Desegregation also had a big impact on Brown. When he was 11 years old, he said, one of his new white classmates invited him over.

"I feel like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," Brown says. "It really was one of those surreal moments where you don't know whether you're going to be uninvited. And his mother comes out with two pot pies, and we sit there and have a really nice dinner, and they make me feel at home. And they make me feel like I am no different than them."

Brown says he carries that memory with him when confronting divisions about and conversations on race.

"I wonder, 'Why aren't we smarter than sixth graders? Why can't we figure this out?' " Brown says. "It takes not a big group, not yelling and screaming, but 'let's sit down and listen to each other and invite someone home for dinner.' "

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last July, the country's attention was focused on Dallas. A peaceful protest against police shootings of black men had turned atrociously violent. A single gunman shot and killed five cops. He injured nine more as well as two protesters. After he was killed and the incident was over, Dallas Police Chief David Brown commanded the nation's attention. At a news conference he said, we're asking cops to do too much.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVID O BROWN: Not enough mental health funding. Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding. Let's give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let's give it to the cops to solve that as well. That's too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.

SIEGEL: And when asked about protesters, Chief Brown famously told them they could help by becoming cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: We're hiring. We're hiring. Get off that protest line and put an application in.

SIEGEL: Applications soared. David Brown has since retired as Dallas police chief. And he's written a book about his life. The title is "Called To Rise." Thanks for joining us.

BROWN: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Take us back to July of last year. And you're facing the press, you've got protesters whose protest has been ruined by this. You have the police who've been under assault. You're the African-American police chief of Dallas. What's going through your mind as you're talking to not only people in Dallas and reporters but to the whole country at that moment?

BROWN: First of all, I'm very exhausted because we've worked well over 18, 19, 20 hours without - I was unable to go to sleep the night before. So we - I'm running on fumes. And so I'm pretty raw. So this is kind of my belief system that I'm expressing, particularly to the protesters to get involved in ways where they put some skin in the game beyond protest and put an application in because that's what I did as a young man in college during my senior year.

But I'm also thinking about the widows and orphans of these officers, having to explain to them why the ultimate sacrifice was necessary to protect our city. And finally, I'm sensing that this is a seminal moment for the country around policing and that we can either rise and come together or we can continue to be divided in our positions and not listen to one another.

So I'm expressing something that I really, really feel deep down.

SIEGEL: When you grew up, there weren't a lot of black cops in Dallas.

BROWN: No, none at all.

SIEGEL: Did you regard the police as scary, as, you know, not your friend who was there to protect you?

BROWN: Avoided them at all cost and that was generational. You know, my mom and dad grew up in the Jim Crow South during segregation. And they didn't have really good views of the police. And they passed that onto me. And as much as you could, you tried not to get in trouble where the police had to come to get involved.

You didn't want that interaction with the police. I didn't receive a lecture, per se. I just received a worldview passed on from my parents and grandparents that the police are not your friend.

SIEGEL: Your story includes a couple of truly tragic dimensions.

BROWN: Yes.

SIEGEL: One of your brothers became a crack addict, and he was murdered in an argument over drugs.

BROWN: Yes.

SIEGEL: Your son suffered from bipolar disorder. He shot some people when he was in a manic episode, and he was killed by police. And you often address the question of why you did well in school, got into UT Austin, didn't use crack, worked hard, succeeded. And in the end, why? What's so different about you?

BROWN: But for the people in my neighborhood, my family, my mother especially giving me the extra level of care and nurturing. My teachers in school were really good mentors. They helped me become comfortable in my own skin. And so I had some advantages.

SIEGEL: But people might get the wrong impression when you speak about the advantages that you had. Your mother mostly raised you and your siblings alone. Your father was not around a lot, I gather, from the book. You had no money. I mean, she had a job at Texas Instruments but, you know, could just about raise the family - pretty bare-bones existence.

One could - you could have gone totally wrong and we could look at enough in your upbringing and what happened to say, well, you know, that's understandable. He was a casualty of the environment that he grew up in. You don't say that at all.

BROWN: No, I don't. There are some keys. I'm a big believer in early child education. Myself and my older brother, through my mother's double shift work, were able to start school in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade at a parochial school there in the neighborhood. She spent all of her extra money on us in the way we started school. And my younger brother, by the time he was born, she couldn't afford to send three kids to that private school.

And then we all went to public school. My brother and I always were advanced in our learning. And my younger brother, because he didn't have that quality early child education always lagged. That was one distinction. Another is, but for the grace of God go I, and those kids - the drug of choice for experimentation during my generation was marijuana. It's not addictive when you try.

The drug of choice for my younger brother when he was of age for experimentation was crack. And you're addicted when you try for the rest of your life. There is the differences that I see.

SIEGEL: The other thing that really impressed me about your story of growing up and going to college and becoming a police officer and ultimately rising to police chief was how a few people, a coach, a teacher, another teacher, your father, who's not always there but who shows up for a critical conversation with you - in a way, how a few moments can be so supportive for a young man growing up and make such a difference.

BROWN: Yes. You mention all of those. And that's true - the teachers, the coaches, just people in my life. But also a young white kid named Mike Schulenberg invited me home during desegregation and changed my world view on race at 11 years old. It doesn't take a lot of town hall meetings and a lot of discussion. It takes an authentic interpersonal relationship.

It takes time to invest. It takes a real opportunity to listen to people and develop a relationship, so much so that people - I'm 56 years old now. Mike Schulenberg and I are still friends today from that one invitation.

SIEGEL: It's a remarkable story. He's an 11-year-old and you're in school together. This is at a school that's just being desegregated, which people forget is a long time after 1954 when the Supreme Court...

BROWN: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...Ordered this. And he invites you home, somewhat to the surprise of his mother...

BROWN: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...That he's brought home a black schoolmate.

BROWN: Yes. And I feel like Sidney Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

BROWN: It really was one of those surreal moments where you don't know whether you're going to be uninvited. And his mother comes out with two pot pies. And we sit there and we have a really nice dinner. And they make me feel at home. And they make me feel like I am no different than them. And I never forgot that. I carry that with me. Whenever there's division and discussion around race and people find it hard to discuss, I always think of Mike Schulenberg in sixth grade inviting me home.

And I wonder, why aren't we smarter than sixth graders? Why can't we figure this out that it takes not a big group, not yelling and screaming but let's sit down and listen to each other and invite someone home for dinner?

SIEGEL: David O. Brown, a former Dallas police chief and author now of "Called To Rise." Thanks for talking with us today.

BROWN: Thank you, Robert, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.