It takes Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns about 15 minutes to walk from King Plaza to the conference room inside the Police Department -- a remarkably sluggish pace for a guy who used to run track at San Jose State University and who made headlines just six years ago by chasing down a bike-riding purse-snatcher on University Avenue.
But it's not entirely his fault. First, he is approached by a man whose wife had been involved in a car accident, who wants to submit a police report and who only speaks Mandarin (Burns walks the man to the police station inside City Hall, where he is provided with a translator). He then says hello to a homeless man who regularly spends his days at City Hall, responds to a greeting from a stranger and then stops as a fellow with a mustache and a beanie approaches him on the plaza.
"Going to take up fishing now?" the man asks.
"No fishing and no golf."
After a brief chat about the past and the future, the man says, "Hope to see you again soon, under better circumstances."
"God bless you," Burns replies.
It's no coincidence that just about everyone knows Burns, and vice versa. For the past 34 years, the Palo Alto Police Department has been his home away from home, and when it comes to police work, he's pretty much done it all. After starting as a patrol officer in 1982, Burns held stints as detective, crime-prevention officer, defensive-tactics instructor, SWAT team member and assistant chief before getting the nod for the top position in 2009.
On Dec. 29, his last day on the job before retirement, Burns sat down with the Weekly to look back on his years in the department and to offer his thoughts on fair and impartial policing, surveillance technology, asylum cities and the many joys and challenges of policing in Palo Alto.
• Download or listen to an 8-minute edited podcast of this interview with Dennis Burns.
Q: Let's start at the beginning, Chief. When did you first decide that you wanted to be a police officer?
A: Growing up in the Sunset (neighborhood of San Francisco) you were probably going to be one of five things, and they all start with the letter "p." You can be a plumber; you can work for PG&E; you can work for the phone company; or you're gonna be a police officer or a priest. My mom wanted me to be a priest -- that's the special intention of every Irish mother: You want your boys to be priests. A lot of the guys in the neighborhood were police officers, and they were good sorts. The job was interesting. So probably from the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to do it.
Q: In football, they say when a team loses, the coach gets too much blame, and when it wins, the coach doesn't get enough credit. Is that how it's like with police chiefs? How much control does a new police chief really have over the department?
A: Certain things happen to the community or the department well beyond the control of a police chief.
What the police chief is really responsible for is how does a city or how does a police department respond to that. How do we react? Do we accept responsibility when we make a mistake or do we say, "It's not our fault." If we're smart, we try to work together.
Q: Do you remember the first arrest you made?
A: My first arrest was a guy whom we stopped and he had some warrants and he gave me his brother's name. Remember John Costa (a veteran officer who retired in 2009)? He went ahead and told me on the radio, "He uses his brother's name from time to time." He was like an early version of "Police Google" -- he knew it all. He said, "Try his name. His brother's name is X." Sure enough, it turned out they weren't serious warrants, but I remember being like, "Hey. This is the first time I arrested someone."
Q: When you got into detective investigating, did you like it more than patrolling? What part of the job is more appealing to you -- the more strategic, solving-the-riddle type stuff or chasing down a guy on University Avenue to get a purse back?
A: They are all satisfying. There's different parts of the brain, and those stimulate different parts of the brain. For detective work -- number one, you learn a lot. You work with judges and district attorneys; you get arrest warrants. A lot of times in patrol, your goal is to make an arrest, and it's like you're building a part of the car. In investigations, you're building a lot of the car.
You're not just putting the hubcaps on, you're getting the case ready to be filed, and not only filed, but you're trying to find out -- is this person responsible for other crimes that are so far not yet reported, can we prove those, can we find other victims and can we prove those?
Q: One of the major cars you were charged with putting together was the Peninsula rapist. What was it like to work on that investigation?
A: When this guy landed it was like aliens. He hit, like, six times within two weeks and then he was quiet for a while -- had about three or four months off. Then he had an attempt. Tom Pohl, one of our officers, spotted the vehicle and that kind of led to a chain of events which ultimately resulted in the apprehension of Romel Reid. ... I remember that day -- Jan. 17, 1996 -- where we ended up arresting the guy.
Q: In the late 1990s, you got another new boss -- Pat Dwyer. Did Dwyer change things or was he more into preserving continuity?
A: He brought a different perspective. On community policing, he changed it so it's less of a responsibility of one group. It's a philosophy for the entire organization, not just, "Those people handle that." The expectation is that we as police officers -- we have police powers but also we can solve problems at a city level -- be it bushes that are covering a sign or other nuisance that isn't technically a police thing.
Q: And he was succeeded by the department's first female police chief -- Lynne Johnson. Did she carry on her predecessor's legacy?
A: Lynne and Pat both were ahead of the game when it came to some of the stuff we see now. Pat made us one of the first agencies in the area that voluntarily collected demographic data on all of our stops. Lynne was also very interested in the accountability piece. She brought us our first version of the (vehicle) cameras. Those have raised the bar for our officers, and I think our community has a higher level of trust knowing that when the cops are out there, they have a camera strapped to the patrol car.
Q: What was Lynne Johnson's departure like? (She resigned in 2008 after making comments that many interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling.) It must have been a painful chapter because, as you mention, the department is so based around transparency and community outreach. How hard was it dealing with the aftermath?
A: It was hard. There was the issue, and then there's the fact that it's a public issue and people are concerned and questioning if we're a legitimate entity or are we actually engaging in something. What's interesting is that I don't know anyone that's done more to ensure that officers avoided it and stayed away from racial profiling than Lynne Johnson. It was totally ironic.
Q: Are you fairly confident that racial profiling did not exist?
A: I think Lynne did her best to ensure there was no racial profiling. We saw what we were doing, and we took some steps (after her departure) to make sure that we absolutely did not engage in it. We had kind of an enhanced concern about our own self-monitoring. If there is one officer or a couple of officers who are getting these kinds of complaints, can we talk to them during training and see if there is an explanation? The beauty is that we have cameras and the cameras do help tell the story.
At the same time, people felt that perhaps there was (racial profiling). We needed to hear that and we needed to look at ourselves and say: "How can we get better?" It's like in sports: "How can we get to the next level?"
Q: I want to ask you about two issues that the council had discussed that your successor will likely be thinking about. One is sanctuary cities. What is the police department's current policy for dealing with immigration-enforcement officials?
A: We have a policy on dealing with immigration. Basically, we will respectfully decline participating in anything with ICE or INS -- any type of sweep or anything like that.
Q: But if it's the current policy, does that mean the designation (as a sanctuary city) is unlikely to have an effect?
A: The reality is, local police deal with state laws -- vehicle code, the penal code, health and safety, welfare institution. ... We couldn't care less about (immigration status). We want people to come to us, regardless of their immigration status. If they're the victim of a crime, if they're in a relationship where their child is getting beaten, if they are being extorted and what have you. In some countries the police are the enemy, and we don't want to have any type of immigration concern that would hinder them or inhibit them from coming to speak with us.
Q: The council has been talking about the idea of having a citywide policy that would govern surveillance technology. Are you comfortable with the department's current policies on surveillance equipment?
A: The policies that we have that exist right now are very strong and they provide our folks with guidance, and they inform people that you can only use this technology for an official law-enforcement purpose. And if you go ahead and choose to use that technology in something beyond that, you're looking at potential discipline, up to and including criminal charges. ... So, I think those things are there. But at the same time, I understand that the public and the council needs to be really smart. If they can provide kind of like a framework and guidance about what our core values are as a city as it applies to this, I think it will help. And it's not just police. There's a Public Works component and a Planning Department component.
Q: What are you up to next?
A: To be determined. We'll see. I'm looking at a couple of things. I'll certainly be working. I'm looking at maybe a community college thing, at least talking to someone about that. I think there will be opportunities that come up, and I'll just have to sit down with my wife and see, does that work?
Q: So you're planning to be a track coach? Or are we still talking about Administration of Justice?
A: It'll probably be more about Administration of Justice, though I'd love to be a junior college track coach.
To read the full Q&A between Chief Dennis Burns and Palo Alto Weekly reporter Gennady Sheyner, view more photos and listen to an 8-minute audio podcast, go to paloaltoonline.atavist.com. In the extended interview, Burns discusses the 1990s cocaine epidemic, the case of the Peninsula rapist, Tasers, his fondness for strategy and what it's like to rappel down tall buildings.
Community leaders will celebrate the retirement of Chief Dennis Burns and Assistant Chief Bob Beacom on Wednesday, Jan. 25. Due to space limitations at the facility, attendance at the event is by invitation only.