David Brown, Lightfoot’s Pick For Chicago Police Chief, Brings Mental Health Expertise To The Job

David Brown, Former Dallas Police Chief
Former Dallas police chief David Brown speaks during a 2017 interview. Brown, nominated to be the next police chief in Chicago, helped design a program in Dallas to change the way police respond to mental health calls. LM Otero / AP
David Brown, Former Dallas Police Chief
Former Dallas police chief David Brown speaks during a 2017 interview. Brown, nominated to be the next police chief in Chicago, helped design a program in Dallas to change the way police respond to mental health calls. LM Otero / AP

David Brown, Lightfoot’s Pick For Chicago Police Chief, Brings Mental Health Expertise To The Job

The first time Andy Keller met David Brown, Brown was still chief of the Dallas Police Department. Keller went to headquarters to talk about his expertise: public policy as it relates to mental health.

“I'm a psychologist, right? So I go into meetings with people who aren't in my profession expecting … people to have sort of generalizations and stereotypes about people with mental illness,” Keller said. “But I go into this meeting, And, you know, the chief just starts going and just laying it out.”

Keller, president and CEO of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, said he was hoping to convince the chief that the department needed to change the way it responded to mental health calls but Brown was already a firm believer that the city’s approach had to change.

“I left that meeting, you know, schooled in psychology by the chief of police,” Keller said.

Brown and Keller partnered on an innovative program for the department, and when Brown retired from policing in 2016 he joined the Meadows Institute working to change the way police handle mental health calls across Texas.

That track record and professional experience has mental health advocates in Chicago excited about the prospect of Brown becoming the next Chicago police superintendent.

“We’ve got to do a better job”

At the Meadows Institute, Keller said Brown helped design a program called “RIGHT Care.” It’s a model in which three-person teams consisting of one paramedic, one behavioral health specialist and one specially-trained officer are dispatched to the 911 calls that would have otherwise just been handled by patrol officers. By one estimate, about a quarter of all police shootings nationally involve a person in mental distress.

RIGHT Care, which stands for Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team, also places one behavioral health clinician at the 911 call center to identify mental health calls. RIGHT Care launched with a pilot program in South Central Dallas in 2018.

BJ Wagner, who heads the Caruth Police Institute, a police research group in Dallas, said since the program started that area of the city has seen a reduction in “emergency detentions” and an increase in officers available for regular patrol.

“It's not only having an impact on reducing mental health hospitalizations and having an impact on increasing community-oriented treatment options, it's having an impact on quality of life for the people who live in this particular area of Dallas, and it's having an impact on crime,” Wagner said.

She said because of its success, Dallas is looking to expand RIGHT Care citywide.

A spokesman for the city of Chicago declined an interview request on Brown’s behalf.

But for years, Brown has talked about the fact that police should not be the ones responding to most mental health calls.

In a webinar last year, Brown talked about the “failure of our society in dealing with mental health,” and how that often leaves police to deal with situations in which they should never be involved.

In that webinar Brown talked about the fatal shooting of a man with a mental illness by Dallas officers when he was chief. He was seemingly referring to the 2014 shooting of Jason Harrison, who was killed by police after his mother called 911.

Harrison was holding a screwdriver when police shot him, and Dallas activists have criticized Brown for the way he handled the shooting, particularly his decision to stand by the officers.

In the 2019 webinar, Brown said the officers made the right decision, but he called the incident a “seminal moment” for him.

“[The officers] followed all of our policies, and yet someone lost their life because they were suffering from mental illness,” Brown said. “And I thought to myself, we’ve got to do a better job.”

Brown has had tragic personal experience with mental health issues. Brown’s son had bipolar disorder and in a psychotic episode, Brown’s son shot and killed two people, including a police officer. Brown’s son was ultimately killed in a shootout with police.

Brown has talked often about his personal tragedy and linked it to his dedication to improving mental health outcomes.

Optimism in Chicago

Amy Watson, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has long pushed for police to stop being asked to respond to mental health calls.

But Watson said she doesn't want to see Brown’s RIGHT Care model replicated in Chicago, because those three-person teams still include one officer, and she said most mental health calls don’t need any police presence.

“I think it's a good attempt to try to get more appropriate resources out to mental health calls. My one concern about that is it's still not getting law enforcement out of responding to what, you know, ostensibly is a health crisis,” Watson said.

But Watson said it will be great for Chicago to have a leader who prioritizes reducing contacts between police and people with mental illness.

“It’s been a while since we've had a superintendent that really, really was paying attention to that specific issue,” Watson said.

Alexa James, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it is inevitable that police will be forced to respond to some mental health crises. And she said Brown has a good record on training officers on how best to handle those situations.

James said she’s also encouraged that Brown made the mental health of his officers a priority when he was in Dallas.

“We can't separate the two. If we're talking about the police standing up to support those who are experiencing mental health crises, we also have to make sure that we're continuing the … investment into officer wellness,” James said.

Brown still needs to be confirmed as Chicago police superintendent by the city council.

Because of complications related to the coronavirus, it’s still unclear when that vote will happen.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.