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)