New Cop, Old Cop

An introduction to Chicago’s new police superintendent

brian bean

Lori Lightfoot recently appointed a new head of police in Chicago. His record indicates a disturbing continuity of racist police violence. 

Last week the Chicago City Council unanimously confirmed David Brown as the new leader of the city’s largest and most violent gang—the Chicago Police Department. Brown assumes the role of top cop after being chief of Dallas PD from 2010 to 2016, one of the longest tenures of a Dallas police chief in recent history. But who is David Brown, and what can we expect from him? He has been presented to Chicagoans as a progressive reformer. But his record in Dallas, the circumstances of his hire, and his first few days on the job here in Chicago all suggest a different story.

Brown emerged on the national stage in 2016 when a rogue sniper killed five Dallas police officers. Brown gave the order to use a robot to assassinate the shooter. It was the first time that US police had used a robot to kill someone. Whatever the exceptional circumstances, anyone should be alarmed by the precedent for targeted drone assassinations being carried out by the nation’s already trigger-happy cops. 

Brown went on from there to build a national profile on the basis of steps he took to increase transparency in the Dallas Police Department by publically documenting officer-involved shootings, including the names of the officers. He changed policy around vehicular and on-foot pursuits designed to try to limit use of force by officers, and he increased de-escalation training. These moves brought him into conflict with the local and national Fraternal Order of Police and Black Police Association, who eventually called for his firing. 

David Brown, wikipedia commons

He peddles a reputation for being attentive to community relations. And in 2017, after he had left the Dallas force, he wrote a book that tells his personal story dealing with racism as a youth and how he turned into a “compassionate advocate of community-oriented policing.” Liberal outlets like National Public Radio and the New York Times have eaten up the story of the Black officer who has dutifully persevered to try to reform policing from the inside. However the case of Brown demonstrates the very limits of liberal reformism of the police.

A cop is still a cop. There is no evidence that Brown’s attention to the community was correlated with any restraint on the part of the Dallas police. On the contrary, Dallas, which is the nation’s ninth-largest city, had the eighth-most killings by police between 2013 and 2016. According to the Dallas Police Department’s own records, they killed forty-two individuals and shot and injured many more between 2010 and 2016, when Brown was chief. Among the many lives lost and families broken apart are the following:

  • In July 2012 Dallas police shot and killed James Harper, a 31-year-old Black man. He was unarmed.
  • In March 2013 they killed Clinton Allen, a Black 25-year-old. Though unarmed, Allen was shot seven times. No charges or administrative action were taken against the killer cop despite grassroots organizing led by Allen’s family and attempts to sue the department in federal court.
  • In April 2013 a white Dallas cop in a squad car ran over and killed Fred Bradford Jr., an unarmed Black man who was riding a bicycle.
  • In August 2015 Dallas police shot and killed Bertrand Davis while he was fleeing from police. The cop who killed him had also shot and killed someone in 2008.
  • In October 2016 they shot and killed Ellias Portillo in the back as he ran from police.
  • In early 2017, shortly after Brown’s departure, 21-year-old mother Dallas police killed Genevieve Dawes in her car in a hail of 12 bullets.

These are only a few of the names and tragic stories created by DPD’s racist and violent practices. 

The mother of Clinton Allen founded an activist group, Mothers Against Police Brutality, which has, along other local groups, carried on the fight for justice in Dallas against the police. Their description of Dallas is a far cry from the exemplar of reform. They say that “Dallas has one of the worst histories and track records of police brutality and deadly fire against unarmed African-American men in the country.”

As chief, Brown presided over this killing and refused to carry out reforms that the grassroots in organizations fought to institute such as a civilian review board (important to note for Chicago’s organizing). Kim Cole, a Dallas activist with Next Generation Action Network, calls Brown’s reforms nothing but “window dressing.”

The department that he left behind in Dallas generated more controversy in 2018 with the highly publicized murder of Botham Jean by the off-duty police officer Amber Guyger, who last year received a ten year sentence for the killing. And last July twenty-five Dallas cops were suspended because of the release of a rash of racist and white supremacist social media posts including one that praised the running over of protesters with cars. 

Brown is an alumnus of the National Counter-Terrorism Seminar, an officer exhange program through which apartheid Israel trains US cops on colonial practices it uses to oppress Palestinians. Figures like Israeli defense consultant Amichai Magen—who lamented that it was unfortunate that the Israeli bombardment of Gaza did not “finish the job”—advise US police on how to best carry out the racist repression that is the chief job of police.

Brown’s reforms are nothing but “window dressing”

In December, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot unceremoniously fired previous police head Eddie Johnson for “intolerable behavior.” According to Lightfoot this consisted not of the cover-up of the police killing of Harith “Snoop” Augustus, Johnson’s reinstatement of the police commander who faced charges for torturing a suspect, or being admittedly blind to police misconduct, but rather for having a little too much to drink while on the clock. Most likely Lightfoot was also provoked by an old grudge with Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel hired Johnson, who hadn’t applied for the job, bypassing three finalists selected by the Chicago Police Board, headed at the time by Lightfoot. The notoriously petty Lightfoot had it out for Johnson and wanted to put her own person at the helm of the CPD.

David Brown is that person. His selection makes sense for Lightfoot because he appears as a face of reform that meshes with the image Lightfoot wants to present. 

Now that Brown is heading up Chicago’s department it can be assured that he will try to use his reputation of reform to gloss over the continued harassment and brutality that Chicago police carry out especially on Black and brown communities. 

Perhaps this image is why Chicago’s city council voted unanimously in favor of his appointment. This seems like a missed opportunity for Chicago’s socialist alderpeople who could have registered a protest vote against Brown to perhaps challenge his narrative of reform or lodged a “no superintendent without CPAC” demand to help push the agenda of the civilian police accountability council that they support.

Brown’s appointment corresponds with Lightfoot’s agenda of trying to claim the mantle of police reformer while pursuing a hardline increase in police repression throughout the city. Campaigning on her position as head of the police board from the get-go, she promised expanded police powers, increased prosecution for guns, and, perversely, using closed schools as police training facilities.

One of her first moves was the deployment of paramilitary SWAT officers to the city’s train lines. The very first day of this new plan officers shot a man in the back for the absurd infraction of walking between train cars while they were moving. The increase of potential for violent force naturally results in increased use of that force, and more such incidents will certainly follow.

Lightfoot has also used the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to carry out more racist police expansion. Since the issuing of the state stay-at-home order videos have circulated on social media of police sweeps through Black-majority neighborhoods. Sections of the West Side basically have been placed under curfew, with checkpoints set up and IDs required to show you are a resident of certain blocks. The long-held perception of the police being an occupying army rings truer than ever with Lightfoot’s moves. 

The way the pandemic is being policed reeks of racism as the number of police dispersals to the notorious 11th District on the West Side reached 1,450 last week. This number is 40 percent of the total dispersals across the entire city. Checkpoints and police sweeps are certainly not the enforcement methods that residents of higher-income majority-white neighborhoods like Lincoln Park or Gold Coast face. 

With Cook County being a national hot spot for COVID-19 any arrests carry the risk of the possibly fatal virus both inside the jails and into Chicago’s already hard-hit Black neighborhoods.

The appointment of Brown, who announced his new job by ominously telling Chicago to “buckle your seatbelts,” signals more of the same. In his first day in office he carried out a police surge, taking cops from other districts and moving them to do high-volume police sweeps on the West Side. This created large confrontations as cops without protective facial masks got in the faces of local residents upset with the dramatic increase in intimidation and harassment. 

Brown’s stated reason for this police surge had nothing to do with the pandemic but on being tough on crime. This is despite the fact that the number of murders in Chicago since the stay-at-home order took effect is just thirty-four, down from forty-eight during the same period in 2019, sixty-two in 2018, and forty during the same period in 2017. However the normalization of increased police presence to enforce health provides a cover for police sweeps, more violence, and needless arrests. 

Brown and Lightfoot’s lofty goal of this year having the fewest murders since 1957 signals a tough approach that will increase racial profiling, arrests, and undoubtly the torture and violence that comes along with that. Policing is not the answer to community violence.

Fighting against the violence of the police in Chicago under Lightfoot and Brown will mean expecting to hear plenty of platitudes about being attentive to the community from Brown while continuing to press a tough-on-crime agenda that will increase police powers, repression, and use of technology. They will use COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so, as justification of more policing. We have a struggle ahead of us.

brian bean is a member of the Rampant editorial collective and an editor and contributer to the book Palestine: A Socialist Introduction forthcoming from Haymarket Books.