A man named Drandon John Brown was shot and killed by police over the weekend. Among homeless outreach workers and friends, Brown was known as “Chief.” They say he was a veteran and a leader among the residents of the Brookmeade Park homeless encampment — though he often struggled with his mental health.
Allen Searson was homeless for 18 years. For eight of those, he lived in Brookmeade Park.
He remembers when he moved in, he was welcomed by a tall, gray-haired man named Chief.
“Chief was one of the best guys in the world. I mean, he’d give you the shirt off his back,” Searson says. “New people show up all the time. And he’d help them get tents and and a sleeping bag and get them set up with a camp, you know, so they won’t be stuck out in the rain and cold.”
Searson and Chief became close, though sometimes the relationship was challenging. When Chief stopped taking his medicine, he saw Searson as an enemy instead of a friend.
Searson could tell Chief was struggling with his mental health when he visited him two weeks ago. Chief’s camp was set up on property next to the park, which was going to be redeveloped. He had just found out he needed to relocate.
Searson says it was obvious that pressure was weighing on him.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry. I wish there was something I knew I could do to help you,'” Searson says. “He said, ‘I know you do.’ He said, ‘I know that.'”
It was the last time he saw his friend in person.
A few weeks later, he saw Chief on grainy body camera footage, arguing with police officers on River Road.
Outreach worker Lisa Wysocky of Colby’s Army says she has interacted with Chief during similar angry outbursts like what she saw in the video.
“We always de-escalated him just by listening to what he had to say,” Wysocky says. “And I think he needed that. He just wanted somebody to talk to.”
Wysocky says she had tried to connect Chief to services before the shooting, but lately, he refused.
She wonders if things might have turned out differently if a mental health counselor had been there.
But a pilot program that pairs counselors with police hasn’t expanded to West Nashville yet. And some officers say it can take more than an hour to get mental health workers on the scene.
Chief’s death is not the first fatal shooting this year where mental health and unstable housing played a role.
Landon Eastep was fatally shot by police on I-65 in January. While Eastep had a box cutter, Chief had a pocket knife.
“This is not an isolated incident,” says Lindsey Krinks of the nonprofit Open Table Nashville. “They treated him as a threat to be neutralized instead of a human being experiencing a crisis, a mental health crisis, but also on one of the coldest nights of year, a crisis of survival.”
She says the ripple effect of his death will only deepen the mistrust between the city and those living in the margins.