Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns, a City Hall veteran who rose through the ranks before assuming the department's top position eight years ago, is preparing to turn in his badge later this month.
Burns, a soft-spoken and popular leader who joined the Palo Alto Police Department in 1982, announced that he plans to retire at the end of this year, the city announced in a statement. Police Capt. Ron Watson will serve as interim chief while the city conducts a national search for Burns' permanent replacement, according to the city.
Since joining the city nearly 35 years ago, Burns held a wide range of positions before he was [named chief in 2008. Earlier in his career, he was a patrol officer, member of the SWAT team, a detective, a detective supervisor, a crime-prevention officer, a defensive-tactics instructor, an assistant chief and even an interim fire chief.
In the mid-1990s, he led several high-profile cases, including that of serial rapist Romel Reid. He was also on the internal team that investigated allegations against officers Michael Kan and Craig Lee, who were accused of beating and pepper-spraying resident Albert Hopkins (both were ultimately acquitted).
In 2008, after his predecessor Lynne Johnson was effectively forced into retirement for making comments that many interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling, then-Assistant Chief Burns was appointed as her successor. He quickly launched an action plan aimed at regaining the community's trust, which included a daily training program on case law Constitutional issues (with scored tests) and enhanced field-training for officers on the subjects of race relations and crisis communications. He also had the police department participate in a training program on bias-based policing created by racial-profiling expert Lori Fridell.
Even as an administrator, Burns was never far from breaking news. A former college sprinter, he made headlines in October 2008 when he chased down and apprehended a purse snatcher who was riding away on a bicycle on University Avenue. And in February 2010, he was the incident commander when a small private plane hit a PG&E tower and crashed into an East Palo Alto neighborhood, killing all three passengers and knocking out power in the area.
That same year, he temporarily served as chief of both the police and fire departments, a dual role he held until the hiring of current Fire Chief Eric Nickel.
Former police spokesman Dan Ryan, a long-time colleague of Burns, described him at the time as "an able administrator (who) still has the ethos of a street cop in him." Two years ago, he was the recipient of the "Tall Tree" award in the category of "Outstanding Professional/Business Person."
Burns is one of several employees with 30 or more years at the City of Palo Alto who have recently announced their retirements. These include Assistant Utilities Director Jane Ratchye and Joe Teresi, senior engineer in Public Works.
Burns said in a statement that he is looking forward to "the next chapter."
"The organization is stable, and we have a capable, professional team in place," Burns said. "I am confident that we have the right personnel and organizational structure to ensure the Palo Alto Police Department will maintain its high standards and dedication to protecting the community."
City Manager James Keene said that while Burns' departure is "certainly bittersweet, he has earned the opportunity to move into the next phase of life."
"Dennis has been a trusted leader and always went out of his way to add a human touch to our public safety operations," Keene said in a statement. "He will leave a legacy of internal organizational improvements and a deep connection with our citizens and the surrounding communities."
Keene also said that he and Burns have been working on a transition plan that provides "continuity and stability" among leadership ranks while the city searches for a new chief. Keene noted that Watson, who is one of two captains in the department, has indicated he will not be a candidate for a permanent position.
The City Council plans to hold a recognition ceremony for Burns at a meeting in January.