Should We Be Grateful for Chief Brown?

It would be easy to feel hopeless after the week we’ve had in America, in addition to rage over police shootings of black men, a sniper attack killing five Dallas police, on-going violence in law enforcement settings as a constant backdrop to daily life.

There are some signs we can choose to see encouraging if we want, among them the gratitude shown the Dallas police force and the dialogue that has opened quickly about the use of a robot-delivered explosive to end the sniper’s life.  We need to get better at using dialogue as a tool for exploring difficult issues so, for me, this is a hopeful development.

My greatest sense of hope has come from Dallas police chief, David Brown.  His demeanor and words in the immediate aftermath of the deaths of police and the shooter; his patience with questions; his candor in sharing his sense of fatigue and being overwhelmed by the task before him as a leader in law enforcement in today’s world—these have all offered us compassionate, calming leadership.

That is just what the situation called for and Chief Brown is uniquely qualified to provide it.  To my knowledge, he has not spoken of the death of his own son since the events of Thursday transpired.  His child was killed shortly after Brown became Dallas’ police chief, apparently following the son’s psychotic break.  During that episode, his son killed a police officer.  And then the police officers killed his son.

It appears that Chief Brown has somehow moved on from that unspeakable sorrow and loss, a torturous collision of responsibilities as a father and a police officer. He appears to have learned from them and reconciled them, in every sense of that word. Somehow he found a way to process his pain as a parent losing a son while serving as his city’s chief of police, presiding over the officers harmed by his son and who harmed his son.  He knows mental health issues are real issues—diseases of the brain just as critical as disease of the heart or any other vital organ.  He knows mentally ill people kill officers and officers kill mentally ill people.  He knows that this is true and hard.

David Brown has been a pioneer in community policing.  Dallas officers were seen taking selfies with protestors as they protected them Thursday night.  In addition to losing his son, he also lost his own partner early in his career.  He knows the hurt of unjust loss.  He speaks of love, trust, gratitude.

Personally, I am relieved that Chief Brown was leader of one of the first law enforcement departments to use a robot-delivered bomb in the act of policing.  Many have expressed concern about this choice and provided thoughtful analysis of the ethical issues raised by this moment (read one thorough post by Patrick Lin here: Should the Police Have Robot Suicide-Bombers?)

I share concern that even an entity we know as the police “force” not use that force irresponsibly.  Certainly we have seen how this erodes trust and takes innocent lives unjustly.  But it seems as if there has been some divine intervention to give us Chief Brown as the leader to watch in this moment.  A black man whose brother was killed by drug dealers.  A father of a son suffering an incurable mental illness who killed a police officer and then died at the hands of police officers in response.  A police officer that lost his partner in the line of duty. I choose to be grateful that someone with this perspective is the person helping us sort through this terrible moment and that he has done it so well.

Ann Skeet is the director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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