Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown Reflects on Life, Loss

Brown said that every step of his life equipped him with the wisdom to lead during the July 7 police ambush

Former Dallas Police Chief David Brown knows the ups and downs of protecting a big city. He has been loved, hated and loved again. He led during immense tragedy — losing four officers along with a DART officer during the July 2016 ambush — and over the years, he has suffered many family tragedies.

Brown, a notoriously private man, hasn't spoken of any of it until now.

Sharply dressed and just off a plane from New York where he now lives and works, Brown was happy to be home for a recent visit to South Dallas.

"This shaped who I was," he said, of the neighborhood.

He said all the senses come rushing back when he's home.

"When I am here, I have those smells locked in my memory. I can smell this neighborhood, I feel it. And I hear some of the best music being played," Brown said.

Despite a poor upbringing, he said South Dallas shaped him.

"Coach Hulsey mentored me. He was a white coach. He treated me like his son. I didn't have tennis shoes to wear. He bought me some Chuck Taylor Converse just so I could play football, out of his pocket," Brown said.

Brown, a straight-A student, was voted "most likely to succeed" at South Oak Cliff High School. Then he went to the University of Texas at Austin but says he left early to become a police officer. He wanted to fight the war on drugs in South Dallas.

"It was my little secret with me and my neighborhood, that I was going to come in and save the world, as a naive 21 year old," Brown said.

He said his first big setback came in 1988 when he was called to an officer-involved shooting. After he arrived, he learned his partner, Walter Williams, had been shot while responding to a domestic violence call. A man hiding in the bushes outside the apartment complex ambushed Williams.

"He's passed away, and I'm in the room, and I'm talking to his spirit, not to him. He's gone. I want to quit. I was so hurt. I was very emotional, and it wasn't going to be fun anymore without Walter. And I was looking for jobs," Brown said.

Brown said it was the first time he questioned God.

"I had lost my faith because good people are not supposed to have bad things happen to them, you know. I was a really young man. I was still in my 20s. So I really didn't understand how bad things happen to good people, and my faith was shaken to its core," he said.

But Brown forged ahead as a cop – determined, he says, to make a difference in South Dallas. He became a supervisor in the 911 call center, but life continued to present challenges. Three years after losing his police partner, Brown's little brother, 28-year-old Kelvin Brown, was killed by a crack dealer in Arizona. Brown says to this day, he doesn't know all the details. He says that's when he realized life wasn't so cut and dry.

"Internalizing that, but for the grace of God go I," he said.

Brown believes it it could have easily been him, but leaving Dallas for college when he did saved him.

"My experimentation with marijuana just 10 years before my brother passed, and his experimentation with crack cocaine, but for the span of time on what the drug of choice was for kids to experiment, I really truly believe that because I had gone to the University of Texas at Austin, out of the neighborhood when that crack cocaine epidemic occurred (saved me). My younger brother was still here and the experimentation for young kids not knowing this new thing, not to try, because you get hooked the first time," Brown said.

He said it would have derailed him, "like it did many of my friends."

Next, Brown joined Dallas SWAT for seven years. He then spent some time community policing, where he says he learned the value of community relationships with cops.

"I love the fact that you can come in and change the dynamics on a street by the way you police it, respecting the right people," he said.

In May 2010, Brown became chief of police, the second black police chief in Dallas' history. He says he wondered how a kid from South Dallas ended up here.

"I shouldn't be where I'm at. I shouldn't. The odds were against me being successful – as a kid, as a college student, as a police chief. The odds were against me," he said.

Seven weeks after being sworn in came his darkest chapter.

On Father's Day, the chief's son, David Brown Jr., shot and killed two men at an apartment complex in nearby Lancaster, including a Lancaster police officer. Minutes later, other officers arrived and killed Brown's only son in a hail of gunfire.

At the time, Brown said this to NBC 5: "I regret that Officer Shaw is deceased at the hands of my son. I regret that Mr. McMillian is deceased at the hands of my son. I regret that my son had to lose his life in a violent incident. I regret all of it."

Brown said he later learned his son was bipolar and that he had PCP in his system that day.

"Mental illness is a big part of what I had to struggle with, with my son. I'm not the only person with someone they love who is mentally ill. Although my son's mental illness was on a public stage. It was through a tragedy, losing an officer's life. Losing an innocent young man's life and gun violence," he said.

Brown took two weeks off to grieve. He described the next few months as a fog.

"People are talking to you, trying to console you. Things are going on around you that you just don't remember it happening. It's because I could look at you (Meredith) during that time frame, and somebody could be right over here doing anything and I wouldn't even notice it. You're in this fog. You're functional, of course. But at the same time you're not aware. It's beyond heartbroken. I was trying to describe the depths of the pain. It's like a hole in your heart that doesn't close. Time doesn't help it," Brown said.

Just like before, Brown said he got up and kept going. Six years into his job as chief, came another twist. His popularity started to plummet. In 2016 the murder rate in Dallas was up, and a lot of Dallas police officers were leaving the force. Morale, he said, was low and in March 2016, his resignation seemed pending.

"Every union wanted me fired, immediately, wanted me fired. The black union, the Hispanic union, the white union. Then July changes everything," he said.

July 7, 2016, was the day that changed Dallas forever. There was a planned Next Generation Action Network rally in downtown Dallas. It ended peacefully, and Brown said he headed home when he immediately got a call from assistant police chief David Pughes.

"He says immediately, 'Officers down, and they're 'low sick.' Low sick makes your heart sink. It means they're likely not gonna make it. My heart began to race because that is the one thing in my tenure that I was most proud of," Brown said.

He had never lost an officer on his watch.

"Then David calls me back and talks about several officers have been shot," Brown said.

He said he saw the big picture immediately.

"I knew this was a really important moment for the country. I knew that right away. I was fully aware. I also knew that if we were going to resolve this, it would take everything I had and that nobody else could help me with it. As a city, as a country, the aftermath of this could go very, very bad for policing, for this country or for this city, or we could start a healing process between police and communities if I performed at my best," Brown said.

We now know Micah Xavier Johnson had opened fire on a group of police officers, killing five and injuring nine others. Two civilians were also wounded.

"I remember a moment in time where I didn't cry, I didn't lose it. I looked around the room and said, 'I am the only person under control here,'" Brown said.

Looking back, he said that every step of his life equipped him with the wisdom to lead during the police ambush.

"I had been in SWAT, I had dealt with explosives, I had dealt with a person with a high-powered rifle, I had dealt with losing my brother, my partner, my son, I had dealt with the tragedy of burying a child, which these parents had to bury their police officer sons. I had dealt with everything we were dealing with that night before," he said.

After the police killings, Johnson holed up inside a building on the campus of El Centro College, and an standoff ensued.

"I saw it as this is the most significant SWAT operations in American policing. I knew explosives had never been used. I knew no one had thought about wrapping C4 around a bomb robot. I knew that. I knew, likely if it didn't go well, I would be to blame," Brown said.

In the early hours of July 8, SWAT officers killed Johnson with a bomb strapped to a robot. It was a first in the history of U.S. law enforcement.

"I would do it again under the same circumstances. I feel the same way today. I would use C4 wrapped on a bomb robot to end that siege," Brown said.

The chief got the call that it had worked and Johnson was dead.

"Relieved that it was over. But I was looking at the faces of the officers in the ER. They were at the breaking point. They expressed to me, 'We can't do this anymore'. What I mean by 'this' is how we handle protests," Brown said.

That's when Brown stood before TV cameras and said in a now famous quote, "We're hiring. Get out of the protest line and put an application in."

Brown says he regrets nothing he said.

"That's because that's what I did. I quit school to come help my community, and why can't you?" he said. "If someone tried to challenge me on it, '(I would say) I did it, why can't you do it?'"

"You've got to have some skin in the game," Brown said.

At the city's memorial service to the fallen officers, then-President Barack Obama and former President George W. Bush spoke. But what most people remember is when Brown stood up and quoted the lyrics to Stevie Wonder's, "As."

"I'll be loving you until the rainbow burns the stars out of the sky, I'll be loving you," he recited.

Looking back, Brown explains that decision by saying this, "It's about me loving you so much that I am willing to serve you. I am willing to do what it takes to express it to you, that I am going to find ways to let you know there is no question in anybody's mind that I love you and that is this profession and that is public service."

Brown retired in October after 33 years in law enforcement and six years leading the Dallas Police Department.

His book, Called To Rise: A Life in Faithful Service to the Community That Made Me, is out this week, and he is appearing Wednesday at the Winspear Opera House for a special conversation with NBC 5's media partners at The Dallas Morning News.

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