Dennis Burns named Palo Alto police chief -- to lead changes

Burns has been interim chief for 10 months, leading community outreach efforts

Dennis Burns will become Palo Alto's new police chief, City Manager James Keene announced today, following a 10-month selection process that included a national search.

Burns, a 27-year veteran of the department, has served as interim chief since the forced retirement last year of then-Chief Lynne Johnson following televised remarks that were widely interpreted in the press as condoning illegal "racial profiling" by officers, which she denied.

Burns edged out two other finalists in the highly publicized selection process.

Keene said today he has thought long and hard about the choice and believes that he has made the right one.

"I made the decision based on 'Who could lead the department best?' during a time of change," Keene told the Weekly. The city issued a press release announcing the selection at 10 a.m. today, after Keene telephoned City Council members to inform them of his choice.

Keene acknowledged concerns about the process of Burns leading change within the department.

"People will say he's an inside person" who might be constrained in spearheading changes due to his longstanding relationships within the department.

"But I'm convinced that he's the one who can lead the department to make the changes needed," Keene said.

"I've made it clear to him that this will be part of his job. He is a man of integrity, true to his word, and he has committed to make sure this happens," Keene said.

He said the new chief "is going to have to be effective with three distinct constituencies: the department, the community that is really several communities, and the (city) leadership team.

"The chief can't just be one-dimensional."

Keene said he feels Palo Alto has a "good police department, but it does need to change." He did not list specifics, but the department for several years has been embroiled in allegations relating to racial profiling and a year-long investigation into alleged embezzlement at the Children's Theater that ultimately fizzled.

"I thought long and hard," Keene said of his decision, adding that he did extensive background and reference checks on all three finalists.

"I really think Dennis is the right person for the job," he said of his research.

He acknowledged that there is a small group of harsh critics of Burns and the department, and said he listens to what the critics say, which includes name-calling allegations aimed at department officials and officers.

"We live in a democracy and this is a college town," he said of the critics. "Everybody is entitled to their opinions.

"I want to treat everyone with respect," he said.

Burns' appointment concluded after a national search that took 10 months and that included a March public hearing, meetings with Police Department command staff, and meetings with the city's business groups and other stakeholders. The city hired a national recruiting firm, Bob Murray & Associates, and received 48 applications.

The candidate pool was narrowed to seven candidates, each of whom was interviewed by two panels. One was a community panel, which included Human Relations Commission Chair Daryl Savage, former City Council member LaDoris Cordell, former Mayor Vic Ojakian and other local officials and residents.

The other panel was a "professional peer panel" that included top city officials and police officials from other California cities.

In mid-July the panels narrowed the field to three finalists: Burns, San Carlos Police Chief Gregory Rothaus and former Fairfield Police Chief Kenton Rainey. Keene interviewed the three finalists in mid-August before making the decision, which still has to be confirmed by the City Council.

Savage praised Keene's selection of Burns, who she said brings integrity, experience and patience to the city's top police position.

"I think it's an excellent choice," Savage said.

"I'm glad the city manager realized that we had a good chief in place already."

If the council confirms Keene's choice at its meeting on Sept. 21, Burns would officially start as permanent chief on Sept. 22. In a report recommending Burns' approval, Keene refers to Burns as "a man of character and integrity" and the candidate "best able to bring about change in the department."

The police department includes 162 staff members an an annual budget of about $30 million. The base salary for the police chief position is $178,573.

Burns started his career in the Palo Alto in 1982. He has worked all patrol shifts and served as a Field Training Officer, a detective, a detective supervisor and a crime-prevention officer. He was promoted assistant police chief in 2007 and became interim police chief on Dec. 19, following Johnson's resignation.

Burns holds a bachelor's degree in Administration of Justice from San Jose State and a master's degree in Public Administration from University of San Francisco.

Some residents have argued in recent months that the search hasn't been transparent enough. At Monday night's City Council meeting, police critic Aram James criticized Keene for being too hasty with the hiring process and argued that community members should be allowed to interview the three finalists at a public hearing.

James asked Keene and the council to put the hiring process on hold.

"There isn't a more important local position," James said. "I think we need to have all three candidates here so the public could be fully informed."

Two candidates for City Council, Mark Weiss and Tim Gray, also publicly asked for more time to review the candidates at Monday's meeting.

Gray asked city officials for more patience, while Weiss asked the council and Keene to get more public input and to look into some of the allegations brought forward by James and other police critics.

"Transparency demands that we take more time on this critical decision," Gray told the council.

View the press release (PDF)

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Like this comment
Posted by curious bystander
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:31 am

Congratualtions to incoming Chief Burns! He is truly a man of great integrity, and from all of my interactions with him, he seems to have his head screwed on straight. At least he knows what he in for.

Like this comment
Posted by Sherry
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:32 am

I am elated!
Congratulations Chief.
Most deserved and the obvious choice.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:33 am

Dennis Burns is a great choice for Police Chief!

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:51 am

Congratulations to Chief Burns! I applaud the decision.

I know our city manager Jim Keen had excellent criteria for his decision. There were pros and cons for each candidate. In my book, he made the right choice. I am impressed by Dennis Burns who has always been extremely responsive to our neighbrohood

Yes reform is needed, but this is true for every organization which should periodically evaluate operations and look at business improvements. Chief Burns is a man of integrity and has the trust of the department. He is the best choice to make this happen and more likely to to do this than an outsider.

I hope that we will move forward and not rehash the past under prior leadership. Let the conversation be about the vision for our city and how to be most effective.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce Li
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:56 am

Many positive changes have already occurred at the Palo Alto Police Department since Chief Burns began his interim assignment. Congratulations to the new Chief!

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:59 am

Wonderful news! Burns has proved his dedication through the years. When I lived in PA and had occasion to interact with him, I find him accessible, impressive intelligent and knowledgeable, caring and sophisticated. He plays the game well and brings class and gravitas to his official new role.

Like this comment
Posted by Cash for Codgers
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:01 am

Predictable choice, but why not? The man has "paid his dues" here and to bring in an outsider, no matter how well qualified, has downsides to it. I'm happy to see this.

Like this comment
Posted by Torn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:06 am

How disappointing. Burns is far from what we need as a chief. Did he ever make changes as an assistant chief? Did he ever try to make things better before he wanted to become chief? Please tell me what he did as an assistant chief. tyhe assistant chief is in charge of the everyday operations and he did nothing

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:09 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Like this comment
Posted by Disappointed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:20 am

I hope that Chief Burns will not support future witch hunts such as the Children's Theater Fiasco and that he is ever vigilant about racial profiling. I also think that he could have been a much better actor with the Albert Hopkins incident. And by all means Chief Burns, let's have full transparency during your term as chief. Anything less is simply unacceptable as you are a public servant of the citizens of Palo Alto and as such it will be your duty to keep your nose totally clean.

How about training officers to use tasers only when appropriate (if at all)? With all the news about people being tased for petty crimes and injuries that can result, it would Chief Burns to instruct the officers in the correct times and situations in which a taser may be employed.

Like this comment
Posted by michael james
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:22 am

nearly always better to promote from within
good choice, already an improving attitude in department

Like this comment
Posted by Timothy Gray
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:26 am

Now that a choice is made, let's rally behind Dennis, and help mend the strained relationships. My experience with Dennis is that he is an excellent listener, and he has the skills to pave the way for a relationship that will evoke cooperation and good will. Let's make sure this stays a priority, as trust and mutual respect is essential between the police department and the community. Dennis can openly and honestly address his critics with factual and straight-forward answers. His critics expect that as an "insider", he will just sweep the historical dark chapters under the rug, however he knows that any defensive postures will just lock in historical rifts. There was an opportunity to give the new Chief a head-start by allowing a little more community outreach, but now that Dennis has been selected, lets watch the mending begin. An improved Police / Community relationship is, and always has been, our collective goal.

Timothy Gray (an Inspired and Fearless Candidate for Palo Alto City Council)

Like this comment
Posted by elated plus
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:53 am

Many thanks to City Manager James Keene for being fair and objective! Chief Dennis Burns is the right person to lead one of the finest police departments in the country. Chief Burns has demonstrated over the past 27 years that he is a leader and he will do a fine job as Police Chief!!!

Congratulations to Chief Burns !!!!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Greg Bell
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:04 pm

Congrats Dennis, You're such a solid guy, we're glad to see you get the nod. All the best to you.

Like this comment
Posted by Sandra
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:13 pm

If the lack of real, meaningful inclusion of community residents in the decision-making process in choosing the police chief is a sign of things to come, then it's the same as usual. Same racial profiling, illegal contracting of police to companies like Page Mill, unfair probing into groups like the Children's Theater. It's sad that this process reveals how disrespectful city staff are to community residents voices. It's not enough to say "i thought about it". There's no transparency in that.

Like this comment
Posted by jt
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Since Burns is the city manager's choice, the city manager should be able explain Burns' role in the following:

-- The Children's Theatre case and the supervision of Detective Sergeant Mike Yore

-- The PAPD's handling of the Albert Hopkins case (the black motorist who was savagely beaten by two Asian officers, who were let off the hook by a hung jury divided by race).

-- Burns' role in the Luis Verbera case (an officer convicted of sexually assaulting women he pulled over for traffic stops)

-- Whether Burns supervised Detective Natasha Powers, who falsely accused an 18-year-old man of a rape at the Palo Alto Commons nursing home. She got him to confess by telling him he was seen on a surveillance video, which was a lie. He was cleared by DNA though Palo Alto police insisted he was guilty.

In each case, Burns played a role. I'd like to know if the city manager examined these cases.

Like this comment
Posted by intheknow
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:19 pm

The San Carlos candidate Rothaus was the best candidate for the job. He is a successful, fair and seasoned leader. Too bad for Palo Alto, but good for San Carlos that he is staying.

Good luck to the new cheif.

Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm

Congratutalationas chief Dennis Burns and wish uou all the best.

Like this comment
Posted by CHinCider
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 17, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Those who continue to criticize Dennis Burns' supposed role in past problems do not have all the facts and are engaging in speculation at best or are falling for the hyperbole of some borderline psychotic frequent speakers at Council meetings.

For example, Chief Burns did not supervise the Children's Theater investigation, and Sgt. Yore did not report to him. He was intentionally kept out of the issue by former Chief Johnson.

Dennis Burns is a good and decent man who will do a great job under difficult circumstances.

Congratulations, CHIEF!

Like this comment
Posted by Aram James
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2009 at 2:02 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Sadly --since James Keene refused to allow for a public forum -where all three candidates would have been required to answer questions from members of the press and maybe the citizens- there remains many unanswered questions re Burns fitness for the job.

1) How deep was his leadership and involvement in the internal cover-up of the Kan & Lee case--(the brutal beating of Albert Hopkins)?

2) Why has Burns failed to disciple officers [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff] for their wholesale violations of Tony Ciampi's constitutional rights and for the brutal tasering Tony was subjected to by these officers?

3) Why has he failed to institute a prohibition against the use of lies and deceit in the interrogation process--- that lead to a near wrongful conviction of Jorge Hernandez [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

4) Why did Keene let Burns off the hook for his involvement in the CT scandal--where he called former PAPD Sgt. Yore the "quintessential detective?"

5) Why has James Keene allowed Burns to form an advisory board that apparently has and will be meeting behind closed doors--- a committee selected by pro-police boosters?

6) Why has Dennis Burns never acknowledged the long and vile history of racial profiling and racially discriminatory policing by his department ( that continues to this day)?

7) With so many other victims of this department �under the leadership of Burns and Lynne Johnson�how in the world can Keene�s own leadership as city manager not now be seriously questioned? Keene has made a mockery of the entire process.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Aram James

Like this comment
Posted by Aram James
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2009 at 2:15 pm

I like the staff edits ( on my orginal post) --you make me sound more reasonable on the subject that I am feeling right now. Aram James

Like this comment
Posted by opus
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I say great! Why bring well meaning and qualified applicants into the dysfunctional city of palo alto politics and employment. The applicants not chosen should thank their lucky stars for not being chosen! Why Dennis would choose to stay is either a credit or that he has just given up hope of getting another job after employment with the city. Here's to all city employees who put up with the jaded comments from city management, city council, and city residents. Dennis, I feel your pain! Good luck!

Like this comment
Posted by grant
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 17, 2009 at 3:01 pm

super choice---a good man --who will do a great job---he has been all around town in the public meetings and knows how to listen

Like this comment
Posted by EcoMama
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 17, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I applaud the City of Palo Alto for choosing a police chief who seems to actually care about people. When I met and spoke with Dennis Burns about an issue of concern to me, he was attentive, engaged, and interested in following up on the issue and with me. It's my sense that he's in his line of work because he actually cares about helping people, less so than because he wants to be a political appointee. I think that we're all in good hands with him at the helm.

Like this comment
Posted by qq
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Anyone know Chief Burns position on issuance of Concealed Carry Permits to law abiding residents of Palo Alto for self defense? It was a hot button issue for the Sheriff race in San Diego earlier this week.

Web Link

Most of the candidates said that they, if elected would turn San Diego County into a Shall-Issue county for CCW permits.

Have the police officers in Palo Alto received training on how to deal with citizens that have been denied CCW for lack of "good cause" and must openly carry their firearms for self defense? Many departments have issued memo's on the subject.

Web Link

Would be interesting to to ready the Palo Alto memo, if one existed. I notice the PAPD website has multiple documents on firearm turn-in and disposal.


Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 17, 2009 at 4:10 pm

When I consider the people, on this forun, who oppose Dennis Burns, I can only rest assured that he is the right choice for Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by George Browning
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 17, 2009 at 5:10 pm

The few vilifiers of the police dept. can only find 4 or 5 cases occurring over the past 10 years to criticize - and repeat them endlessly. Each year there are thousands of contacts between officers and residents which do not result in complaints. If the department operated as poorly as they claim, there should be many more incidents to criticize.

Citizens should not run the police department or any other city organization. Public forums do not have the knowledge or experience to make reasoned, intelligent judgements in operating a police department.

The City Manager has done a diligent, thoughtful job in choosing Dennis Burns to be our Police Chief. This has pleased the greatest number of residents and department staff. Thank you, Mr. Keene.

Like this comment
Posted by Aram
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 17, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Great to hear the news. Congratulations Chief Burns

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Tatum
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2009 at 7:13 pm

As a past member of the PAPD leaving as a Captain to become Chief of Vacaville, I am very pleased to hear of the selection of Dennis Burns as the next Chief of Police of Palo Alto. I have always kept in touch and remain aware of what is happening in Palo Alto. A city that has always been on the cutting edge and whose police department I was very proud to serve on and although moving on to Vacaville, another excellent city with an outstanding police department, I have and will always have very fond memories of the city that provided me with outstanding training and opportunities.

Chief Burns will serve Palo Alto very well.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto Firefighter
a resident of another community
on Sep 17, 2009 at 8:25 pm

I'm very proud to call Dennis my friend for over 28 years. Great choice for the City of Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm

The next election? I've just crossed two off my list of possible choices.

Like this comment
Posted by Ben
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Worst choice possible.

Recently we had an issue with the police. It was the same cover up of the inept staff and no action in sight. Dennis Burns is part of the problem.

Can't get rid of systemic problems with the same old head.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Sep 17, 2009 at 10:38 pm

Reality check - these are cops, so their work is not going to be transparent. Ever. Anyone thinking it will be transparent is living in Disneyland.

Like this comment
Posted by Mayfield Child
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 18, 2009 at 12:07 am

We all will be watching you as you are watching us Chief Burns!

I think the tides have finally changed in Palo Alto by your being in the top ranking position. I have enjoyed a neuteral meeting with you in the monthly "meet the Chief" informal and informative meetings. Hope you will continue these....

Much more responsibility now falls into your corner which I believe you will handle with grace and tact.

Congratulations again!

Like this comment
Posted by M
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 18, 2009 at 12:29 am

I am happy to hear this. It's great to hear that the city decided to choose one of its officer who has served the city of Palo Alto for his entire career.

What I think needs to happen is many in the public need to stop telling professional law enforcement officers how to do their jobs when those complaining do not have a thorough understanding of how LE works.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2009 at 8:31 am

Chief Rainey of San Carlos and Chief Rothaus, the former Fairfield Police Chief, deserve an apology for having their names dragged through the protracted and very contentious Palo Alto political process.

Thank you gentlmen for your patience and tolerance; may I wish you a less bumpy ride in the future.

The vast majority of Palo Alto residents were firmly behind this decision all along which may jeopardize the future political aspirations of Mark Weiss and Tim Gray.

To Chief Burns: it took a long time, but we really are pleased and happy that you are now our "Police Chief". We can all assign the words "interim" and "acting" to the verbal garbage heap of trivia.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2009 at 9:22 am

Correction: Chief Rothaus is Police Chief of San Carlos and Chief Rainey is the former Police Chief of Fairfield - sorry about that.

Like this comment
Posted by Charles Bogle
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2009 at 10:03 am

Wasn't it Dennis Burns who signed off on the initial police report and supervised Michael Yore who charged Nelson Galbraith with the murder of his wife when she actually committed suicide? Palo Alto or Chicago?

Like this comment
Posted by silly
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2009 at 12:36 pm

didn't sound like Yore or his supervisors were the crux of the problem in the Galbraith case. I'm tired of hearing the same old broken record from a select few, transparency, whatever, every time. Police Chief is not an elected position, you do not get to vote on it or hear their views in a public forum.. Local police do not issue CCWs. So many silly, inaccurate, ignorant posts....

Congrats to Chief Burns.

Like this comment
Posted by Kate
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2009 at 5:43 pm

My previous post

"Posted by Kate, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Sep 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm The next election? I've just crossed two off my list of possible choices"

Read the paper about Monday's chief-approval meeting. Make thatt three off my possible choices" for the next election. I added Klein.

Like this comment
Posted by A Noun Ea Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 20, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Even if Officer Burns was the "for sure" pick, if there wasn't a process of interviewing or considering others imagine the hue and cry.

To those critical of (now) Chief Burns based on past allegations and concerns regarding PA Police Dept. (Children's Theatre, Hopkins case, etc.).

Assuming validity to your concerns....

Why not give him the benefit of the doubt and see what happens. Sometimes people in subordinate positions can't achieve what they would like, have to tolerate things they would like to change.

Assuming that in the past Officer Burns had deficiencies....sometimes people rise to their new positions.

Notice I said "assuming".

Like this comment
Posted by Charles Bogle
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 23, 2009 at 3:04 am

"didn't sound like Yore or his supervisors were the crux of the problem in the Galbaith case". Prosecutor Condron relied upon Yore to file charges of first degree murder. This was not a parking ticket and when those who are invested with such great authority destroy the rights of citizens then we all suffer. The police chief is "not an elected office" that is true and there is no "transparency" nor do we as citizens have any rights as to how our tax dollars are spent. I am sure the City Attorney will back his play and business as usual will continue in Chicago er a Palo Alto.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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