Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns announces retirement

After nearly 35 years of service, chief to step down at the end of this month

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.


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25 people like this
Posted by Linda Lenoir
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 13, 2016 at 11:55 am

Congratulations Chief Burns! You are a great loss but I understand there is a life waiting for you after your retirement! I have known you for over 20 years and been on various committees and task forces with you. I never experienced a more caring person, a person who always had a calm demeanor, a person who listened to everyone at the table so they felt heard. You offered your services even when you were not on duty whenever you were called or there was a crisis. Thank you for your dedication and your work with our students at PAUSD. You saved so many of our children and they knew you cared! You attended important events for our youth, fundraisers for our non-profits, you got around! You are a great role model for our youth and adults in our community. I learned from you that in order to make a difference one needs to go above and beyond the daily duties of our job. You did and the community is in a better place because of you!
Thank you Dennis, you will be missed! linda

10 people like this
Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

Chief Burns, we will miss you. I vividly recall your attendance at the Midtown Ice Cream Social events. I remember you even helping us clean up one year. I have always felt good about the Palo Alto Police with you at the helm.

18 people like this
Posted by Penny
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Dec 13, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Chief Burns stands out as a dedicated leader and public servant. He is a great example of truly good man who consistently does the best he can to support a peaceful and healthy community for everyone. We have been very lucky to have him in this role for so long.

Best wishes, Dennis. And thank you!

Posted by Tony
a resident of Downtown North

on Dec 13, 2016 at 5:43 pm

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11 people like this
Posted by Chris Gaither
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 13, 2016 at 6:37 pm

This is a very sad day for Palo Alto, but a very positive and happy day for Chief Burns and his family. Thank you for all of your work here in Palo Alto, and for creating a more community based police force. It is actually a joy to stop and speak with officers who are in the neighborhood for whatever reason. They are very open to discussion, and always very professional in the way they address you, as a person. Of course, everything is not always roses when it comes to police having to enforce and carry out their duties, but the PAPD normally leave you with having had a very pleasant encounter, regardless of the situation. I believe this is due to Dennis Burns' leadership over the past 8 years. Best wishes for a great retirement from the force, and new professional endeavors. May the force be with you, always!

3 people like this
Posted by Longtime Resident
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Dec 13, 2016 at 6:56 pm

We thought it was good form, showing courage, integrity & interest in understanding the public and our concerns, when Chief Burns went around to various Palo Alto locations, holding "Meet the Chief" gatherings.

We went to several, early on. It was a useful way to be introduced to the police department, as a whole, and to its leader. It took time and planning, and it was handled beautifully.

Thank you, for a job well done. We wish there were more men like you, Chief Burns, in more areas of city life.

You will be missed. But if you return after an 8 week leave, to your old position, or work in another city, you would be one of the precious few employees that would be worth his salt in that regard. Right now -- you may be the ONLY employee that would be worth that to taxpayers. :)

7 people like this
Posted by Darice
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Dec 13, 2016 at 9:22 pm

Congratulations on your retirement Chief Burns! You have been a valuable employee to Palo Alto and you will surely be missed. It was an honor to serve on various committees with you. Your dedication and support to our youth and the community is laudable and inspiring. I know I will miss seeing you around. Enjoy your well deserved retirement!

3 people like this
Posted by Mark
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 14, 2016 at 12:42 am

Dear Mr. Burns--

Thank you so much for your service to our community Mr. Burns. I wish you luck and lots of happiness in your next new life!

Thank you,


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Posted by @PAFreePress
a resident of another community
on Dec 14, 2016 at 4:51 am

We wish Dennis Burns an enjoyable retirement he’s earned. Although I have disagreed with many of his policy’s, Dennis has always displayed a calm demeanor including being an exceptional listener. Both are critical ingredients as a successful leader. And I think he’s demonstrated that. Dennis, its your time to buy cup coffee the next time I’m back in town….

The Best is yet to come.


1 person likes this
Posted by Larry
a resident of Gunn High School
on Dec 14, 2016 at 11:28 am

A true "Cop's cop!"

11 people like this
Posted by Renaissance
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 14, 2016 at 6:29 pm

Dennis is a renaissance man. He truly inspires me. He leads by example.

For example, he shows up for firearms qualifications, where past Chiefs found excuses to miss their scheduled "Range Times". He also earned his appointment by merit, rather than by political pressure - i.e., Looking good in the press and demographics.

Dennis never made a large splash to bring attention to himself. He did it by working hard and making good decisions! Very rare today. Especially in L.E.

Hit them with the Hein, Dennis! A-1

3 people like this
Posted by Alex A.
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 15, 2016 at 6:01 pm

Chief Burns will be missed. He once spoke at my retirement home and was instantly liked.

I imagine he will find work in the private sector, guarding some high-tech executive like John Costa.

He's such a nice looking young man. Bearing a strong resemblance to Mitt Romney.

I'll miss you Chief Burns!

1 person likes this
Posted by Sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 15, 2016 at 9:46 pm

Dennis Burns is a nice guy. He is a good police chief.

We will miss him.

Best wishes on his retirement.

4 people like this
Posted by Jeffery P
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 23, 2016 at 4:13 pm

Thank you Chief Burns, your leadership has demonstrated "To Protect & To Serve" includes EVERYONE. The true testament of your leadership is the number of great members of the force to carry your legacy forward.
Enjoy, the most fun and BEST is yet to come.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Stanford

on Sep 26, 2017 at 6:49 am

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