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When Dallas Police Chief David Brown described how he got through the first three days after a lone sniper assassinated five Dallas police officers on July 7, the veteran officer kept it simple: “God’s grace, and His sweet, tender mercies, just to be quite honest with you.”
It wasn’t the first time Brown needed tender mercies in the wake of violence and tragedy. Indeed, the African-American police chief knew personally the kind of grief and racial strife that gripped the nation when a second black gunman struck down three police officers in a Baton Rouge ambush on July 17.
The slayings in Texas and Louisiana came after white police officers shot to death two black men in Baton Rouge and Minnesota in the weeks prior under controversial circumstances that some said were evidence of excessive police force against African-Americans. Alton Sterling died after an encounter with Baton Rouge police. In Minnesota, a police officer shot Philando Castile four or five times in his car after pulling him over for a traffic stop in a St. Paul suburb.
Castile’s fiancée—sitting in the passenger seat—caught the aftermath on video. Castile was a cafeteria supervisor at a local elementary school. Outside the school, parents grieved his death and a somber dad held a sign: “Mr. Phil fed my children.”
For Police Chief Brown, the tragedies cut across a series of searing losses in his own life: His former patrol partner died in the line of duty. Drug dealers killed his younger brother in Phoenix. A week after Brown became police chief, his mentally ill son killed a citizen and a police officer before police killed him.
“My family has not only lost a son, but a fellow police officer and a private citizen lost their lives at the hands of our son,” Brown said in a statement after the deaths. “That hurts so deeply I cannot adequately express the sadness I feel inside my heart.”
Brown’s Christian faith has kept him from despair, according to his pastor, Tony Evans of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. Evans told The Dallas Morning News Brown deals with tragedy by trusting in God’s sovereignty. “There are innocent people who suffer for the wrong that people do,” Evans said. “How God calculates that, I don’t know. All I do know is that nothing happens by chance.”
The police chief also has worked to reduce tragic error. After taking the top job at the Dallas force in 2010, Brown insisted on training officers to de-escalate when possible the intense encounters that can lead to shootings. Trainers simulate real-life exchanges recorded by officers’ dashboard and body cameras and with video captured by citizens.
Last November, the department reported shootings in Dallas by police officers down by 40 percent, with complaints of excessive force at a 20-year low.
Brown has encountered some criticism. Some officers say a drop in the number of police officers has sometimes made them less able to arrive at crime scenes in time to respond. Others have said the chief is heavy-handed. Still, Brown has insisted on street-level leadership that seemed to be improving the department’s community relations before shots rang out in Dallas in early July.
A thousand miles away, another African-American leader was talking about street-level experience. U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, delivered a trio of race-related speeches on the Senate floor after the Dallas slayings.
Scott spoke about the importance of supporting police officers but also the reality many black men face. Scott said law enforcement had pulled him over seven times in one year during his tenure in Congress: “Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.”
The senator, who has ridden the bus and volunteered for shifts doing manual labor to meet his constituents, urged Americans across races to listen to each other. He and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., urged people to invite a family of a different race to their home for a meal—an idea they called “Sunday Solutions.”
At a time when some on both sides of the racial divide are yelling and elevating their own importance, the best immediate Christian response is often to listen.
Soon after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network especially urged white evangelicals to listen closely to the concerns of black Americans: “Many are hurting, and there’s something to it. And we may not understand, but we can come along and listen and be empathetic, which communicates, if not understanding—then solidarity.”