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

Dallas Police Chief David Brown briefs the media about a shooting at Dallas Police headquarters on June 15, 2015.
Tony Gutierrez
Dallas Police Chief David Brown briefs the media about a shooting at Dallas Police headquarters on June 15, 2015.

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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