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The Dallas police chief who inspired a nation with his response to the killing of five of his officers shares his personal story and his faith in America’s potential to unite communities through a dedication to transparency and trust.
“The real deal: a real Christian, a real man, a real leader.”—Whoopi Goldberg, The View
“A front-row seat to the tension between law enforcement and minority residents nationwide.”—The Dallas Morning News
On July 7, 2016, protesters marched in the streets of Dallas to demonstrate against the killings of unarmed black men by the police. As the peaceful event drew to a close, a sniper opened fire, targeting white cops and killing five of them. Into this charged situation stepped Dallas police chief David O. Brown, who, with a historic new tactical approach, quickly ended the gunman’s siege and calmed his community and the nation.
In this powerful memoir, Chief Brown takes us behind the scenes of that tragedy and shares intimate moments from his early life: his childhood, in which he was raised by a single mom in a neighborhood poor in resources but rich in love and faith; his college years—cut short when he felt called to save his hometown from its descent into drug-related violence; and, as he moved up the ranks, a series of deeply personal tragedies. His first partner on the job was killed in the line of duty; his younger brother was murdered by drug dealers; and during Brown’s first month as chief of police, his mentally ill son was killed by a cop after taking two other lives.
Called to Rise charts how, over his thirty-three-year career, Brown evolved from a “throw ’em in jail and let God sort ’em out” beat cop into a passionate advocate for community-oriented law enforcement, rising from crime scene investigator to S.W.A.T. team leader to the head of a municipal police department widely regarded as one of America’s finest. Now retired, “America’s chief” wants to bring his hard-earned knowledge of Dallas—emphasizing outreach, accountability, and inclusion—to help encourage unity in the nation’s hurting communities.
Chief Brown believes that we have to band together to engage in the kind of dialogue that can lead to solutions. In place of complaining, we all have to take action—and one first great step is to tune in to what is being said. Called to Rise explores the keys to that dialogue—trust, transparency, and compassion—that have made Brown a leader on the front lines of social change in America.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Called to Rise
I never set out to be a cop. But after returning to my hometown during the summer after my sophomore year of college, I was so terrified by what I witnessed that it awakened in me a potent determination to intervene.
The year was 1982. What was happening in my Dallas neighborhood of Oak Cliff was happening in communities all across the country: A crack epidemic, one more destructive than any drug pandemic before it, was devastating America’s inner cities in particular. Crack, a cheap form of cocaine that dealers turned into a smokable crystallized solid, could be measured out in smaller and more affordable quantities to peddle to the poor. But coke’s less expensive derivative had an even stronger power to hold users in its grip. Many who used were often willing to do whatever it took to get their next fix—even steal or kill. Many who sold found themselves engaged in turf wars to protect their sales territory. The homicide rate among black men spiked significantly after crack came on the scene. Gun violence became a way of life, for those engaged in the trade and for residents who lived in close proximity to drug houses. Before I’d left my hometown to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin, I didn’t know a single person who’d been killed. But that summer two years later, a kid on my block was fatally shot in the cross fire of a deal gone sour.
Even after I returned to college that fall to begin my junior year, my head and heart stayed back in Oak Cliff. All semester I’d call home frequently to check on my beloved mother and my younger brother, Kelvin, who was living with her. Every morning and evening in the dark, amid this Armageddon, my mother had to navigate her way to the bus stop for work. I feared so deeply for her that I’d often awaken in the middle of night and be unable to get back to sleep. I couldn’t concentrate on my course work. “Pay close attention to your surroundings.” She responded the way she had for all my childhood. “I’m just trusting in the Lord,” she said. “He will protect me.” Though I prayed she was right, I felt Him calling me to do something.
For me, that desire was intensely personal. Oak Cliff was the community that had made me. It’s where I’d shot hoops and formed lifelong friends, the place where I’d found my feet and became grounded in my faith. It’s where three generations of my family had lived and worked and hoped for better, where my mother had reared three sons on only a secretary’s salary and a prayer. I couldn’t just stand by and watch my family in danger and my hometown destroyed. I had to step up. The way I saw it, the fools who were selling crack in the very neighborhood that had produced us needed to be locked away. They were killing us. Though I soldiered on through my course work, I’d already made a decision: I would leave school and join the Dallas Police Department.
The plague of crack was the main reason I decided to join the force, but there was something else pulling me back to Dallas and into a life of adult responsibility. During my freshman year, I’d started seriously dating a girl I’d met in high school, and in 1982, we got married. A few months later I discovered we were expecting. So the following spring, once my junior year was complete, we moved back to Oak Cliff and rented a small apartment.
Did it bother me to leave college with one year to go? It did. I had this nagging sense of a task undone, a goal not met. I’d seen higher education as a passageway out of poverty, a chance for me to make something of myself. In pursuit of that goal, I’d invested countless hours in the library, poring over my textbooks. I’d worked constantly to keep my grades up so I could earn a scholarship. And once I’d enrolled in the university, I’d flourished academically and socially and formed a new circle of friends. By walking away, I’d be sacrificing all of that, and though it was for a cause I felt I couldn’t deny, I still wished I could complete my studies. So I put a plan in place: If I was accepted onto the force, I would transfer to a school in the University of Texas system in Dallas and continue my course work on the side.
In June 1983 my precious son, David Junior—or D.J., as I affectionately call him—was born. His tiny body nearly fit in my cupped palms. From the moment I first held him, my desire was to give him everything I didn’t have as a child, as well as to pass on the strong wisdom and faith my family had instilled in me. Even before I cradled him for the first time, with my Afro as full and thick as the Dallas humidity, I loved him unconditionally. Becoming a parent has the ability to alter the very way you love, and so it did for me. I cherished my son not because of anything he would ever be able to offer to me but simply because he existed. Nothing he could do would change that. On the day he was born, I put on the mantle of fatherhood, shoulders lifted and heart full, ready to nurture and protect and, above all else, provide. That is what being a good father meant to me—providing.
As I settled into a routine of diaper changing and bottle feeding, I made plans to apply to the force. My own father didn’t like the idea. “Why do you want to be a cop?” he asked me. “There are so many great things you could do with your life. Cops mistreat people in the community.”
I understood my dad’s perspective. He’d come of age at a time when police officers had been the ones to enforce the indignities of segregation; that experience had not only scarred him, it had shaped his worldview. It was only out of concern for me that he voiced his dissent. I’m sure my mother was just as worried, but she didn’t try to dissuade me. “You just be careful, son,” is all she told me. She could probably sense that I was immovable in my resolve.
On a clear morning that July, I left my one-month-old son at home and departed for the municipal building at 106 South Harwood Street, the old police headquarters where Lee Harvey Oswald had been arrested and jailed after he assassinated President John F. Kennedy. There, on the fourth floor, I asked for an application. The secretary, a black woman in her late thirties, looked me up and down. “You aren’t likely to be hired,” she told me. I suspected she said that because I still looked and acted like the inner-city kid I was proud to be, but I didn’t care what she thought. “I’m going to be a police officer,” I snapped back. She handed me the form. I stood there and filled it out and returned it to her the second I was finished. I left the building that day certain of only one thing: I wouldn’t take no for an answer.
David, my former college roommate, called me soon after I’d applied. I told him I wasn’t planning to return to college in the fall because I was entering the force.
“How much do they pay?” he asked. I told him the starting salary was just under twenty thousand dollars.
“Well, I’m moving to Seattle after my senior year,” he told me.
“What’s in Seattle?” I asked.
“A company called Microsoft is hiring,” he told me. At UT Austin, he’d already proven to be a mathematics and computer whiz. “Why don’t you move up there with me?”
“Nah, man,” I told him. “I’ve gotta stay here in Oak Cliff.”
“Why do you want to be a police officer?”
“Because they’re hiring,” I told him. “I’ve got a baby who needs diapers and formula.” I’m not sure why I gave him only half of the story. Maybe I assumed he wouldn’t understand. But my desire to become a police officer wasn’t just a practical solution to my young family’s financial needs; there were plenty of jobs out there, plenty of ways to earn a living. The fact is, I had never felt more drawn in a particular direction. The magnetic pull was strong and unyielding. I didn’t just want to return to Oak Cliff to take up law enforcement; I felt I needed to go back there. Fifteen years later David, who indeed joined Microsoft, cashed out his stock and retired. That was his path. I had to follow my own.
A few weeks after I applied, when I received word that I’d been accepted into the police academy, I could not have been more ecstatic. On the morning of August 2, 1983, I was among the first to arrive for the seventeen-week training. The academy felt a lot like college: attending lectures, taking notes, studying, and plenty of memorizing for test taking, which was my strong suit. The fifty or so of my classmates and I were there to learn the intricacies of the law and the department’s procedures. We were also there, through intense daily drills, to get in excellent physical condition and learn how to properly handle a firearm. Before the academy, I’d never even held a gun. When my turn came around to aim and shoot the .38 Smith & Wesson revolver, the sheer force and raw power of each bullet tearing through the air nearly knocked me from my stance.
On day one, I met Walter Williams, a black guy who was then forty-two. At twenty-two, I thought he was old; that notion now makes me laugh. I was the young and dumb one, the baby, while he’d actually experienced a full life. He’d already served for years in the military and was married with children. He’d recently relocated to Dallas from Oklahoma. Despite our age difference, we hit it off right away. We’d joke around between lectures, and on days when the workouts became grueling, we’d challenge each other to stay focused. Like me, Walter had a strong competitive streak. “Man, I bet you can’t do a hundred push-ups in less than a minute,” he’d say. Seconds later I’d be on the ground, pumping out push-ups while he eyed the clock. During our daily mile runs, he’d always try to outsprint me, and on the few occasions when he did, he wouldn’t let me forget it. Much has been said about the strong bond that exists between cops. For Walter and me, that started before we’d officially been declared officers. From our very first conversation, I knew we’d be close friends for life.
We completed our training near the start of the holiday season. Upon graduation, each of us was given a badge and a gun, to be worn alongside an extraordinary sense of duty to serve and protect the residents of the neighborhoods in which we were to be placed. To my surprise, I was assigned to Oak Cliff, and so was Walter. Officers aren’t usually assigned to their home neighborhoods, as a way to guard against any favoritism that might arise. I’d listed Oak Cliff as my home on the department application, but that detail was somehow overlooked in an era before records were computerized. Some might have seen that as an administrative oversight. I saw it as divine providence.
I returned to my hometown with no idea of where the assignment would lead me. I only knew that I felt compelled by a profound sense of purpose, one too powerful for me to resist. I hadn’t yearned for a life in law enforcement. I’d come back to Oak Cliff simply because everything that I’d ever known and cared about—my family, my home, my community—was at stake. At the time, I thought I was answering the most important call of my life. I’d one day recognize it as only the first.
David O. Brown is a thirty-three-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, from which he retired as chief in October 2016. Now a correspondent for ABC News, he is also an adviser for Texas organizations focused on positively influencing early childhood education efforts, mental health awareness and treatment, and assistance for formerly incarcerated persons. Chief Brown lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter. This is his first book.
Michelle Burford is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and a founding editor of O: The Oprah Magazine. She is a Harvard-trained journalist whose work has taken her to more than thirty-five countries on six continents. A native of Phoenix, Burford now lives in New York City.