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Brown, Lee(1937–) - Mayor, police chief, federal government official, Chronology

city houston university san

Lee Patrick Brown is one of the top law-enforcement officials in the United States. After helming the police forces of Atlanta, Houston, and New York City, Brown served as drug czar in the first Clinton administration and then headed back to Houston to run for mayor. Voters in the city—an urban sprawl equally divided between black, white, and Hispanic residents—elected him in 1997 and returned him to office two more times. Known as a level-headed, press-shy leader, Brown has been criticized sometimes for his management style, but in both his role as police chief and later mayor, Brown “was a determined agent of progress and upheaval for the nation’s fourth-largest city,” noted Houston Chronicle journalist Alan Bernstein. “As he leaves government service, his record brims with the stuff of bricks, concrete, light rail tracks and classrooms or libraries filled with children in after-school programs.”

Brown was born on October 4, 1937, in Wewoka, Oklahoma. When he was of kindergarten age, his parents moved to California’s San Joaquin Valley in order to work in its fertile farmlands as migrant laborers. The family took shelter in a barn at first, with another family, and Brown recalled in an interview with Ebony ’s Kevin Chappell, “when we finally got a house, it was a one-bedroom house with seven kids and mother and father. There were six boys. We would sleep in an old army tent. The ground was a hard floor. We had to pump our water. We had to chop our wood. We had to have an outhouse.”

As a youngster, Brown helped out in the fields, picking grapes, cotton, and other crops for meager piecemeal wages. Luckily, he earned a football scholarship out of high school and enrolled at Fresno State University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in criminology in 1961. Before he had even graduated, however, Brown joined the force of the San Jose Police Department as a patrol officer. He eventually moved over to the undercover narcotics and vice divisions and also took courses at San Jose State University, which granted him a master’s degree in sociology in 1964. From there, he commuted to the Berkeley campus of the University of California and earned a second master’s degree, this one in criminology.

Brown’s break came in 1968, when he was tapped to set up Portland State University’s Department of Administration of Justice. Taking a leave of absence with the San Jose police force, he spent several months on the job in the Oregon city then returned home and decided to run for a seat on the San Jose city council. Because of his time in Portland, however, his residency status was declared invalid. Shelving political office for the time being, Brown earned his Ph.D. in criminology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1970, making him one of the first African Americans to hold a doctorate in the subject. He spent three years in Washington D.C., teaching at Howard University. In 1975, he was appointed sheriff of Multnomah County, in which Portland was situated, but held the post for just a year. He remained there, however, as director of the county’s justice services for two more years.

In 1978, Brown was named the public safety commissioner of Atlanta, Georgia, a position in which he was responsible for the city’s police, fire, and emergency-services departments. The city was mired in thorny anti-discrimination lawsuits at the time due to unfair hiring and promotion practices on both the police and fire departments, and Brown quickly moved to remedy the problems by promoting and recruiting minority officers. He also put in long, eighteen-hour days to help solve a string of unsolved slayings of children and teens between 1979 and 1982 that became known as the Atlanta child murders.

The mayor of Houston, Texas, appointed Brown as that city’s next chief of police in 1982, and he became the first African American to hold the post in Houston history. Again, Brown took over a force troubled by charges of discrimination and hostility toward the city’s black and Hispanic residents. At the time, just 8 percent of Houston’s police ranks were African American, and white officers had been charged with using unnecessary force against minorities during arrests. But Brown took a firm hand as an outsider, enacting changes that served to permanently balance the racial makeup of the force; he also solved several internal-management issues that had kept the Houston force from moving forward. One of the most controversial features of his tenure, however, was a groundbreaking new program called community policing, which sought to improve relations between the police and residents in some of the city’s more troubled neighborhoods. It was a hotly debated initiative and opposed by many police officers at first. Nevertheless, it proved to have some success and was widely copied by other U.S. cities over the following decade.


1937 Born in Wewoka, Oklahoma on October 4

1942 Moves with his family to the San Joaquin Valley in California

1960 Joins San Jose Police Department as a patrol officer

1961 Earns B.A. in criminology from Fresno State University

1964 Earns M.A. in sociology from San Jose State University

1970 Earns Ph.D. in criminology from the University of California

1978 Becomes public safety commissioner of Atlanta, Georgia

1982 Moves to Houston, Texas, to become the city’s new police chief

1989 Takes over as police commissioner of New York City under Mayor David Dinkins

1993 Becomes director of the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy under President Bill Clinton

1997 Wins election as Houston mayor

2003 Joins the faculty of Rice University in Houston as scholar-in-residence

In 1989, newly elected New York City mayor David Dinkins appointed Brown as the police commissioner of the largest city in the United States. Again, Brown implemented new policies that put more officers on the streets, and the city experienced the first drop in crime in thirty-six years just months after Brown came on the job. He stepped down from the post in 1992, however, when his wife, Arlene, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died later that year, and Brown took a job teaching at Houston’s Texas Southern University. Midway through 1993, Brown suddenly gained national attention when President Bill Clinton made him the country’s newest drug czar, the media catchphrase for the director of the Office of Drug Control Policy. As documented in Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents , in the speech announcing the appointment, Clinton commended Brown for his community-policing strategies and expressed gratitude to the appointee for accepting “this challenge. He’d made the decision to do so at a time in his life when he might have reasonably been expected, for personal and professional reasons, to take a different course. He could clearly be making more money doing something else…. The simple fact that at this point in his life he resolved to do this says a great deal about him and his character.”

Brown spent three years as the drug czar, advocating more drug-treatment and drug-prevention funds that were usually blocked by conservatives in Congress. He resigned in 1996, returning once again to Houston, and the following year made a successful bid for the mayor’s office. His opponent was a wealthy Texas Republican, Robert Mosbacher Jr., but Brown—a Democrat—won endorsements from President Clinton as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson. He was reelected two more times for two-year terms. One of his lasting accomplishments was the “Super Neighborhoods” program, which created eighty-eight districts in the city, each with its own local council. He also held regularly scheduled “Mayor’s Night In” evenings, in which residents could visit City Hall to voice their complaints directly to him and his staff.

The Houston city charter’s term-limit provision prevented Brown from seeking a fourth term as mayor, and in 2003 he took a post as a scholar-in-residence at the city’s Rice University. He was planning to write a book on community policing, but he also recognized his place as a role model for youngsters. “When I grew up as a youngster I did not see anyone who looked like me as mayor or police chief,” he told the Houston Chronicle’s , Bernstein. “And I think that makes a big difference in terms of the aspirations of young people. If they can see me, as an African American, serve as mayor of the fourth-largest city in America, then it also serves to energize them to know that they can do the same thing, that they can achieve what they want to achieve.”

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