David Gambacorta | Longreads | June 2017
David Brown was a few months into his tenure as the head of the Dallas Police Department when his cell phone started to hum on a Sunday morning.
He’d been on the job long enough to know the drill: At any given moment, a phone call could be the harbinger of an administrative headache, a tactical crisis, or some gut-wrenching tragedy. But he resisted the reflexive urge to answer.
Brown was standing in a pew at the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship Church. A low-slung building with a sharply pitched roof, the church and its weekly service was his temporary refuge from a chaotic world. He actually considered turning away from his faith once, when he was a younger man and inconsolable over the murder of a former partner, a blow that nearly drove him to quit the police force altogether.
But Brown came to understand loss, the way it coursed through and connected everyone around him like an unseen river. Such lessons had been present in his life from an early age. Brown was born at Parkland Memorial Hospital in 1960, three years before a team of trauma doctors there tried in vain to revive President John F. Kennedy after an assassin’s bullet had exploded through his skull. The very place that had given Brown life became synonymous with the death of a country’s tenuous sense of innocence.
He checked his phone when he left the Sunday service. It was hot outside; the temperature would touch 100 degrees that day. A voice message from the chief of a small-town police department 16 miles outside of Dallas was waiting. It was about Brown’s 27-year-old son, D.J., who suffered from adult-onset bipolar disorder.
D.J.’s behavior had turned erratic that morning, prompting his girlfriend to call 911. But everything was fine now, the chief calmly assured Brown. He tried to get in touch with D.J., but thought better of rushing to him; maybe his son just needed some time to cool down. A few hours later, Brown’s phone started rattling again. This time, it was a no-nonsense detective who took his breath away with just a few words: D.J. was dead.
He’d shot and killed an innocent passerby and a local police officer, the detective explained, and then engaged in a shootout with other cops. D.J. was cut down by police gunfire. The news hit Brown like a sledgehammer to the spine.
It was June 20, 2010. Father’s Day.
The grief could have broken a lesser man, could have swallowed him whole. But Brown clung to his faith, and he somehow endured. What he didn’t know then was that more sorrow was waiting for him down the road, the kind that would draw the world’s attention to Dallas like it was 1963 all over again. And Brown, a quiet, contemplative man who never imagined he’d be a police chief, would emerge from all of the darkness as the embodiment of grace—and the unlikely face of law enforcement in America.
Writer bio: David Gambacorta, a Philly native, is a writer at large at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, The Baffler and Philadelphia Magazine.