By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexandria Police Department Chief Michael Brown announced last week that he would be retiring at the end of the month, citing ongoing family issues. Brown’s retirement marks the end of the law official’s 45-year career, the last four of which were spent helming APD.
Brown leaves the department after a challenging year, as the city and nation have started to rethink the role police play in communities across the country in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. He also leaves a complicated legacy behind, with support for his focus on community-based policing and increased transparency in the APD and criticism for his approach to discipline.
Brown said the calls for increased police accountability in the conversation around policing had no bearing on his decision to retire on June 25.
“The national discussion about policing is affecting every agency across the country. It’s affecting every chief; it’s affecting every officer,” Brown said. “It’s not the first time I’ve had to play in this arena. It’s difficult to go through, but it’s a fair question to ask of the profession and it’s a fair question for us to deal with issues.”
In talking with Brown, the chief remained vague about the “changing family priorities” that led to his decision, stating a desire to maintain privacy for his family. But he said that the demands of living across the country from his family as they deal with ongoing health issues have become difficult for both him and his wife.
“Quite frankly it’s something my wife and I have been dealing with for some time,” Brown said. “… We’re facing family issues currently. We’ve been spending time trying to manage that from the east coast, which is difficult when they’re all on the west coast.”
Brown’s retirement will see him not only leaving the police department but the city that he and his wife have called home since 2010.
Brown’s career in public service and law enforcement stretches back several decades. He spent the majority of his career in the California Highway Patrol, serving as commissioner from 2004 to 2008. He then worked as the deputy secretary for public safety in the State of California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency from 2008 to 2009.
Brown also has experience at the federal level, having served as director of the Office of Impaired Driving and Occupant Protection in the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration during President Barak Obama’s terms in office.
It was Brown’s experience in traffic and safety and his passion for Obama’s 21st-century policing guidelines that jumped out to City Manager Mark Jinks when he began searching for a new police chief after former Chief Earl Cook retired in late 2016.
Jinks called Brown “a very steady hand on the tiller,” and said Brown brought valuable perspective to some of the issues the city and its police department were tackling.
“He knew traffic safety and clearly we have been talking about Vision Zero,” Jinks said, referencing the city’s transportation action plan. “… That’s an example of hiring somebody who’s seen a lot of different things done different ways and bringing that kind of outside view into the department.”
Within the first few months of Brown’s time as chief, he was forced to respond to a crisis: the shooting at Eugene Simpson Field.
As a group of Republican members of Congress and staff were practicing early on the morning of June 14, 2017 for the upcoming annual charity Congressional baseball game, James Hodgkinson walked on the field and shot then-U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (RLA), congressional aide Zack Barth and lobbyist Matt Mika.
The Capitol police assigned to protect Scalise and Alexandria police engaged in a 10-minute shootout with Hodgkinson, fatally wounding the attacker. Capitol Police officer Crystal Griner was also injured in the shootout.
Brown said he remembered the day clearly.
“I remember saying a little prayer on the way there that no one dies today, no cop dies today, because I’ve been in active shooter situations before. Fortunately, we didn’t have a cop that was killed that day,” Brown added.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, who worked with Brown during the investigation of the shooting, said he was impressed with the chief’s handling of the situation that day.
“That’s something that stands out to me, that he was in the center of the storm there but was remaining calm and focused and producing or emanating a sense of calm,” Porter said. “… If you’re in charge of something like that, you want to be aware and in on it, but you also don’t want to be micromanaging. As a leader, you’ve got to find that balance, and I can see that he always had that balance.”
Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said he and Brown arrived on the scene at the same time that day and worked to present the city’s law enforcement as focused and united. In doing so, Brown helped the city come together in the aftermath of the shooting, Lawhorne said.
“From his first press conference in front of the world, he asked me and the fire chief to stand next to him and we did,” Lawhorne said. “I felt like that decision by him is what became the snapshot of how the city was going to react to this. It was a unified front, and, in my heart, I feel like it’s what our community and our city reacted to and came together very quickly and helped us deal with this tragic event.”
While the Simpson Field shooting was only one moment in an already long career, Brown said it cemented his view of police work as a public service. Brown recalled driving through Del Ray and seeing how hurt and scared residents seemed after the shooting. According to Brown, he and his officers came up with the idea of walking through the neighborhood and talking to residents about how they were feeling.
“I remember sitting there with a young man on a set of front steps in Del Ray, and he was telling me how he was scared to go to school the next day. A little 10-year-old. That’s what policing’s all about, is being there for people,” Brown said. “My wife and I have been living in this city since 2010, and we love this city, we love the people in it, but that was a defining moment in my relationship with the city that day. I got to see firsthand how the city cares about its people.”
Under Brown, APD started to release more data, including data regarding officers’ use of force incidents, something police departments across the country have historically been tightlipped about.
“A number of people thought I was crazy when I, for example, put our department policy on the website so people can look at it,” Brown said. “We published data that we’d never published before, including officer involved uses of force.”
“In doing all of that over time, when the tragedies that took place with the killing of George Floyd, when this clamor for ‘Are you doing this? Are you doing that?’ [happened], we were already positioned where we were doing those things,” Brown added.
Over the last year, Alexandria, like many communities around the country, started talking publicly about the role police should inhabit in the city. Residents held Black Lives Matter demonstrations throughout the city last summer. City Council responded by establishing a community police review board and voting to remove APD’s school resource officers from the high school and middle schools.
Regardless of his feelings on the specific policy – Brown has expressed concern about the removal of SROs – Brown said he ensured APD was responsive and involved in those conversations.
“I really got the feeling that he was trying very hard to both understand what the community expected and wanted while also trying to make the argument that the Alexandria Police Department is well run and well trained and is already engaged in a lot of the community bridge building activities that a lot of reform advocates were asking for,” Porter said.
Brown also had his critics. In 2020, a letter sent from members of APD’s Criminal Investigation Division to the chief, in which the writers criticized Brown’s leadership, was shared with the Alexandria Times.
The Times’ subsequent investigation revealed what the writers called a “culture of discontent” in the department, as several employees accused Brown of placing “incompetent, unskilled, vindictive and inexperienced” commanders at the helm of criminal investigations. Several employees cited a lack of discipline and accountability in the department and favoritism, with some behavior getting “brushed under the rug.”
Others, including Michael Rodriguez, president of the Alexandria chapter of the International Union of Police Associations, have expressed support for Brown. In the Times investigation, Rodriguez praised Brown’s disciplinary practices, which shifted away from a heavy-handed approach that had been applied to even minor offenses.
Others claimed that Brown’s more lax disciplinary practices created space for poor leadership that was never corrected.
“As a person and a professional, I hope you leave the impression that you tried your best and you learn things,” Brown said. “Where you made mistakes, you learned, and you celebrated with others the wins that you had. None of us are perfect in leadership roles, but it’s been a privilege for me here in Alexandria because I love this city and I love the people in it.”
When asked about the legacy he hopes to leave behind at APD and in the city, Brown said he has no easy, readily packaged answer. Instead, when reflecting on his time in the department, Brown said he keeps on returning to the people he served with.
“As far as [my] legacy, that will be written by someone else, not by me, but I look at it this way: I’ve enjoyed my time here. … I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of meetings and engaged in a lot of things because I care and that also includes not just the city but the men and women here,” Brown said.
Jinks is set to name an interim chief of police this week and will contract with a search firm to start the hiring process, during which the public and police department will be able to provide input.