On chasing criminals, race relations and being the chief

Dennis Burns, who retired as Palo Alto's police chief last month, stands in front of the Police Department headquarters on Forest Avenue in Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly. 
Dennis Burns, who retired as Palo Alto’s police chief last month, stands in front of the Police Department headquarters on Forest Avenue in Palo Alto. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly. 

by Gennady Sheyner

It takes 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 (after listening to the story, told in fragmented English, Burns walks the man to the police station inside City Hall, where he is provided with a translator). He says hello to a homeless man who regularly spends his days at City Hall, responds to a greeting from a stranger and then stops to talk to a man with a mustache and a beanie who 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 35 years, the Palo Alto Police Department has been his home away from home and 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 Tasers, fair and impartial policing, surveillance technology, asylum cities and the many joys and challenges of policing in Palo Alto.

His mother hoped he’d be a priest

Dennis Burns began his law enforcement career in Palo Alto in 1982 and was named police chief in 2009.
Dennis Burns began his law enforcement career in Palo Alto in 1982 and was named police chief in 2009.

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 office 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. So probably from the time I was 15, I knew I wanted to do it.

Q: How did you get your start in the profession?

A: Well, I wanted to go to San Jose State and study Admin of Justice. My track coach at Saint Ignatius High School took me to a track meet out there and I knew they had a great Administration of Justice program and a great track program. I thought it was a great pick.

Around my junior year, I thought it would be interesting to fly, so I went to the officer (training) school in the Marine Corps. But then I was disqualified while I was back there because of a heart murmur, which kicked me out.

Q: And how did you end up in Palo Alto?

A: And it’s funny, I knew a guy when growing up who also went to SI and we used to travel to San Jose State on the weekends and he had a friend who was applying to Palo Alto. And he got hired before I did. I knew him at San Jose State and I asked him, “Hey, what’s the scoop on Palo Alto. And after I got out of the Marines, I needed a job. So I went back to the drawing board with the police thing and was fortunate enough to get hired there.

Q: How did you react to the setback with flying? I imagine it must have been disappointing.

A: I was there for a few weeks. You had to apply and have a physical fitness test. And I was in (Marine Corps Base) Quantico and the class started and then they concluded that I didn’t meet some standard based on some kind of a range that I was outside of. I was devastated.

Q: So you turned to Plan B?

A: Which was originally Plan A. So it wasn’t a big drop off, but it was, at the same time, disappointing.

Q: So you come to Palo Alto and you’re hired by Chief Jim Zurcher, who’s been here for a long time and who’s had one of the more colorful and eventful tenures with the student protests in the early 1970s. You joined in the early 1980s. What was the atmosphere like at that time? And do you remember what your first assignments were like?

A: I was hired in February 1982. First thing they sent me to academy, which was Santa Clara. We had seven people who got hired in Palo Alto who were sponsored by Palo Alto who went ahead with the process. Five of them completed the academy. Then there was a field training program, which was actually pretty strenuous. It’s 14 weeks long and that gave you the practical side of what you learned mostly at the academic level in the police academy. I graduated in the summer of 1982 from police academy and finished field-training program in September or October 1982.

Q: What were the big issues back then? I assume people weren’t complaining much about license plate readers and those kinds of things.

A: There was the kind of crime you’d expect in a community like Palo Alto: property crime, and you’d have robberies from time to time. There would be our share of violent crimes. I don’t recall there being a tremendous amount of controversy about the police per se.

(Chief) Jim Zurcher was a guy who was two generations ahead of himself. He’s not calling it community policing, but he was talking about community policing before the term has ever even been coined. Back in the day we had a lieutenant, a sergeant, two officers — four community service officers — and they called it community-crime prevention. It was really the outreach arm of police department. It was very effective. That’s what Frank Jordan did in San Francisco in the 1970s and early 1980s as well. It was the police and the community working together as a partnership to solve crime, to solve community issues and have a dialogue.

Chief Dennis Burns greets a man outside of City Hall on Dec. 29, 2016. 
Chief Dennis Burns greets a man outside of City Hall on Dec. 29, 2016. 

We got to know each other not just when something bad was going on, but we knew each other we had these relationships. That’s what we try to do today. We might have newfangled technologies, but my sense is it will never change. It really boils down to a community member and the police officer on the street coming together to work on issues.

Q: I saw it happen three times this morning just getting to the conference room.

A: My knowledge of the local homeless population … I probably know as many homeless people as I know folks who have houses.

Q: Do you think Jim’s perspective was shaped by all the events that happened?

A: I think he always saw that that was the role of the police — that’s my sense. When you’re a new officer you don’t even want to see your sergeant, not to mention the police chief. You just want to do your job, learn and figure out what’s expected of you. My sense is — he had just a very advanced kind of idea about what the police were.

Back then, in a lot of communities it was really about enforcement — it was about writing tickets and making arrests, and interacting with the police wasn’t necessarily something that communities thought their officers should be doing. He had a higher expectation for us all.

Q: Was the job what you expected it to be, both as an officer and a Palo Alto police officer?

A: I went on my first ride-along at the end of academy — I rode with Kathy McKenna, who retired as captain, and I was like, “Holy cow. This is totally different.” It was nonstop. As soon as we got in the car we were going on calls. There were accidents and fights and different things going on. It was more than what I wanted. It was really good. I thought it was really exciting.

Q: Faster pace than you thought?

A: Not faster, but there wasn’t a lot of downtime. And back in those days, swing shift was very, very busy. We were just going to a lot more calls back then, or at least during that time. I thought it was great. It was just what I wanted.

Q: Does what the department does change significantly as you change chiefs or is it the system that’s more important? In football, they say when a team loses, the coach gets too much blame, when it wins, the coach doesn’t get enough credit. Is that how it’s like with police chiefs? How much control does 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. We don’t want to be at odds with the community, or with the press or with any particular group.

Ideally, I’ve seen this over the years by all these chiefs, the best thing to do is for everybody to move toward the middle and have a conversation about whatever it is. Part of the question is going to be: What happened? The other part is: What should’ve happened? And then, what can we do better next time? It might be that a lot of it falls on us, but it might be on others as well.

Q: Did anything change for you — as part of shift to Chief Durken?

A: I always thought that Zurcher was a lot like Bill Walsh.

Q: The charismatic genius?

A: Yes. And Durken was like Seifert. He was more like, “This is working really well. Let’s be thoughtful and let’s continue these same practices.”

Investigating crimes, figuring out the system

Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns, left, talks with officers from the Palo Alto Police Department and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office about the departments’ task of removing active grenades found in a home on Webster Street on Aug 6, 2015. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.
Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns, left, talks with officers from the Palo Alto Police Department and the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office about the departments’ task of removing active grenades found in a home on Webster Street on Aug 6, 2015. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.

Q: You’ve done it all — agent, sergeant, detective, SWAT team. What was it like to progress through these different roles?

A: I did three years of patrol, then in 1986 or 1986 I went to investigation as a rotating detective, which was for a newer officer to go ahead and get their feet wet and see if they like investigations.

And if they didn’t, at least they’d have some experience that they’d bring back to patrol. I liked it. I stayed. I went from being a rotating detective to fraud, where there was a vacancy. I spent a year or year and half in fraud. Then I did burglary for a year and a half or two years.

In the meantime, I was going to University of San Francisco and getting my advanced degree there. Then I went to community crime prevention and worked there. While there, I remember Chief Zurcher announced his retirement.

Q: Do you remember the first arrest you made? Do any other incidents from the early part of your career stick out in your mind?

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.”

Then I remember there was a guy who committed suicide. He was renting a room on Edgewood. He was from the Middle East, I believe. He drank Drano or something like that. This the first dead guy I’ve ever seen. We were there to investigate and I saw that it’s young guy, probably in this early 20s, and he wasn’t sick or anything and he had written a suicide note.

Q: When you got into detective investigating part of it, 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 were 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? And then — the standard for arrest is probable cause — let’s get it to the point of beyond reasonable doubt so that the DA has a great package.

Whatever the case is, it’s something that’s going to go well. And if we do a really good job and button it up really tightly, we’ll never go to court. It’ll be something that can be pled out.

Listen to an 8-minute podcast of Gennady Sheyner’s interview with Chief Dennis Burns

Q: So you pretty much learn how the system works?

A: Yes. And when we have big cases, we kind of blitz them back here. I might’ve been a fraud detective but I got to participate in robberies and homicides. I remember we had a homicide on University Avenue. Probably about 1985 or 1986. This guy was walking down the street and another guy recognized him and he stabbed him with a K-bar on University and Lincoln. He was probably 20 or 21 years old, walking down the street.

Q: But it wasn’t random, right?

A: No. They had something going on. It was fascinating. And how do you put all these pieces together, using the law and using good investigative techniques? I remember one of the guys — one of our dispatchers was in the metal detection unit and I was assigned to go find the murder weapon — low and behold, I’m with this guy Tom Elliot, a great guy, and we found the murder weapon.

We both had this urge to pick it up, we were leaning down near the bushes but then were like, “Ahh we can’t do that.”

Q: You had that wand that you walk with that beeps?

A: He was doing it. I was walking with him. And the gun was in the bushes, across the street.

Big cases and breakthroughs

Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns, left, talks with Director of Emergency Services Ken Dueker about a suspect who has barricaded himself inside a residence on Elsinore Drive on March 23, 2015.  Both the negotiators and SWAT team were used to extract the man, who was taken into custody.  Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.
Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns, left, talks with Director of Emergency Services Ken Dueker about a suspect who has barricaded himself inside a residence on Elsinore Drive on March 23, 2015. Both the negotiators and SWAT team were used to extract the man, who was taken into custody. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.

Q: One of the major cars you were charged with putting together was the Peninsula rapist. There was a task force that you were on that ultimately succeeded in finding the assailant. What was it like to work on that investigation?

A: By that point I was sergeant in investigations on that. It was to be honest with you, we live our days with an expectation of what crime is going to be like. 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 the apprehension of Romel Reid.

Q: Even to get to know who it is– to know to look for vehicle? What was the detective work like to get to the point? Was it just a lot of talking to people?

A: We did a variety of things. We had DoJ, the FBI, all our local neighboring jurisdictions, SMC sheriff, Santa Clara County Sheriff, something called the Sexual Offender Task Force. We literally had 60 people working on this thing.

These were young women typically out for a jog or out for a walk. He would kidnap them, throw them in the van and sexually assault them. It was terrible, it was horrible and there was such a sense of urgency.

We worked really hard. We kind of looked at folks who were on parole, 290 registrants — sex offenders and other people. We had a system in investigative services division where we kind of sifted through them and came up with different things and tried to look for either patterns, or has this person been stopped immediately afterwards. We came to the conclusion that we’ll do a lot of work and hopefully we’ll identify someone.

It was interesting, too, because it was just the inception of DNA and the DNA was very basic; it wasn’t where we are today. So we would get these names, and if we had samples we’d take them down to crime lab and we’ll continue to evaluate.

We also came to conclusion that more than likely a patrol officer is going to make the break on this — so part of it was making sure that our officers and neighboring cops in local jurisdiction were aware of what’s going on, what were the names popping up.

I remember that day — Jan. 17, 1996 — where we ended up arresting the guy.

Q: How did the breakthrough happen?

A: His name was on our list. Some people have described the suspect as being not too tall. He was still kind of under considerations but he was like 6’3”so people said that would stick out more. But no one had described him as being that tall.

Then there was an attempt on Montecito (Avenue) in Mountain View and a couple of hours later, this officer — Tom Pohl — saw the vehicle, went to pursue it and there was a big pursuit that ended up in the Gardens in East Palo Alto, and a big perimeter search. The vehicle wasn’t registered to him but we had an idea of who it was.

We started working that and took about three days. Ultimately, we figured out where the guy was, and he was arrested on Tanaka Court in Sunnyvale. Some of the folks in Sunnyvale assisted us on that one.

Q: You were also on the SWAT team in the 1980s and 1990s. What was the like and what led you to go there? Sounds like a lot of adrenaline.

A: It is. But there’s also a kind of a thinking component to it. It’s really — I always thought about it — it’s “Special Weapons and Tactics.” I’m not sure I like the “special weapons” as much as I like the “tactics.” The question is: How are we going to take this person into custody safely and avoid, if at all possible, any type of use of force. I always thought it was really the key and we were mostly successful in that — some strategy and some teamwork and problem-solving.

It’s very, very interesting and I think some of that helped shape me. Part of it is a lot of planning — you’re planning different scenarios. Scenario A is the best case scenario, Scenario B is the backup plan, Scenario C is the emergency plan, when it all goes bad. That helped me for all sorts of things.

Q: Any huge or particularly memorable operations that you had to take part in?

A: We did for a number of years a regional approach with Mountain View. For the most part, a lot of what we did was serving high-risk search warrants based on detectives solving crimes and then we’d get an arrest warrant and a search warrant. Rather than just throwing whoever we have on patrol to do that, we may have folks who might be a little more tactically aware of high-risk incidents do these things.

One that comes to mind — Latham (Street) in Mountain View- in the early 1990s, a guy took his girlfriend hostage and he was going to kill her. We were there for half a day trying to negotiate with him to come out. Eventually, we executed this thing called hostage rescue, where you actually go in to rescue a hostage. It’s actually quite a rare thing, and our guys did a great job, and it was done really well.

He was in an apartment complex that was, like, three-stories tall. It felt really bad because we were displacing people for a long time, but when we did it and it went really well, they were very grateful. The girl was grateful as well. And he was apprehended — he probably, just like in most cases, was more drunk and emotional than anything else.

Q: Were you part of the group storming into the building?

A: I was not. I was safely outside.

There was another one that comes to mind that was pretty unique. There was this guy — we concluded he was under the influence of a copious amount of cocaine. He shot up his house and he shot up the neighborhood and had shot like 170 rounds of rifle — AR-15-type stuff.

Q: That’s Scarface stuff.

A: It was crazy. It was out of this world. And he was out of his brain. We kind of cordoned it off and evacuated the neighborhood and then we kind of waited. We tried to communicate with him but he didn’t want to communicate. So eventually he came out and we tackled him. It worked out pretty good.

Q: So you talked your way into solving this. Up until the tackle.

A: We used the least amount of force possible.

Quality of life — and racial profiling

It seemed like everyone we arrested had crack cocaine on them.

Q: Are the crime trends any different between 1980s and 1990s? Were there any broad trends?

A: Across the country and across the Bay Area, every place was feeling the brutality of crack cocaine. It did drive our crime stats up a lot. It seemed like everyone we arrested had crack cocaine on them. When I started, heroine was the drug of choice. Then it transitioned to crack-cocaine.

Q: People don’t usually think of Palo Alto with crack cocaine. Usually you associate powder cocaine with affluent places.

A: But there was some. And people were coming up this way to buy some too. We’d arrest people and they’d have it on them or they would be using it when we’d come across them. People would call them in when people were using it in the parking lot. Early 1980s to late 1980s, it was mostly heroine.

Q: In the late 1990s, you got another new boss — Pat Dwyer. Please tell me he wasn’t Pete Carroll or Trent Baalke. 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 and it’s all of our philosophy. 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: The quality of life stuff?

A: Exactly. People don’t want us to say, “Oh, call them for that.” They want us to solve problems. He helped instill that. His big thing was — and what he looked for when he was going to promote people — was leadership, technical skills and a commitment to community policing. Those are the things that if you’re going to talk to him, you can bet he’ll be discussing those issues because he was very passionate about them. That’s kind of who he was and how he saw things.

He also had a bit of a transition coming from San Jose, but he did that very well. He had great experience and he got along with folks well. I think this is a hard place to come, too. Especially into a position like a police chief.

Q: In what sense do you think it’s hard?

A: I think every community has its own personality. In ours, the expectation for public employees is high, and it’s also high for the police department. He was probably coming from a more rigid, larger organization and we are a little less formal and hopefully a little more interactive, less enforcement-oriented.

Q: And he was succeeded by the department’s first female police chief — Lynne Johnson. I know her departure was a very controversial and — I imagine — painful chapter in the department’s history and we’ll get to that in a second. But before that incident, 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 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: Or five cameras, now.

A: Five cameras now. And we’re better off for it. She was absolutely committed to the concept of fair and impartial policing and she wanted our officers to be respected. She saw that if we did certain things like getting cameras, they will have trust in us.

Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson talks at a press conference in 2008. The department’s first female chief, she left her job amid controversy on Dec. 19 that year. Palo Alto Weekly file photo.
Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson talks at a press conference in 2008. The department’s first female chief, she left her job amid controversy on Dec. 19 that year. Palo Alto Weekly file photo.

Q: What was her departure like? From what I recall, she was describing a suspect after a bunch of robberies near the University Caltrain station. She made a comment, saying that (officers) are stopping people who look like the suspect — who was black and wore a do-rag — (she called it “consensual contact”). This was widely interpreted as an endorsement of racial profiling. At that time, you supported her — you defended her as being not into racial profiling. But 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? Even if Lynne Johnson is committed to that, she can’t keep an eye on anyone who is patrolling the streets. Do you feel confident that there was no racial profiling?

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. I’m very proud of the work our folks to on a daily basis. I get to see it here, on HD, and they do an amazing job. They really do.

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: Do you think those people had those experiences?

A: That’s a reality and cops have to realize that racial profiling exists in this country. People may feel as though they’re being racially profiled and we have to do a really good job explaining why we’re stopping somebody. We owe them at least that. And at the end of the day, if people feel that it was not a legitimate stop, certainty we encourage them to call the supervisor and what have you. We look into these things.

And there is a history, in reflecting back at that time in 2008. Some of the stories we heard about were things that happened years and years and years ago. Some of them didn’t happen here. But the thing that was true across the board was it really hurt the people. It was tugging at your heartstrings to hear those stories, and we don’t want to be that police department.

The people we look for when we hire, it’s people of character, who are going to do the right thing.

Q: You got a lot of credit for turning that around. You had the class with Lorie Fridell and you had community meetings. It sounds you’ve made great advances in regaining whatever community’s trust was lost by people’s interpretation of Lynne’s remarks. Is that the case? Do you think more progress needs to be made or are you pretty happy about where things stand now in terms of race relations and people’s trust that the police are not profiling them?

A: We are one incident away from having that come back again. We have to do everything we can on a daily basis — really look at ourselves and be critical and make sure we are policing in a fair and impartial manner. I think we’re doing some things really good. There’s this thing called 21st Century Policing Task Force. We looked at those things and we looked at consent decrees. We looked at other things (Independent Police Auditor Michael) Gennaco talked about. We tried to incorporate them so we’re not reactive when it comes to something like accusations of racial profiling.

Can someone accuse us? Absolutely. We try to have really frank conversations with people about this. If you stop someone of color, if you had the exact same interaction with someone who’s white, they may just say you are rude or discourteous. But if they’re a person of color, they may interpret it that the reason you’re doing it, the intent behind it, is because of their race. We talk about things like the “but for” test. But for the fact that this person is of a particular ethnic group, would you still be taking that enforcement action — towing their car, giving a citation or stopping them?

It’s an ongoing thing. We can’t stop. I’d hope we’d continue to do that. Part of it is our outreach. Very simple concept. The people we have on board are amazing people, but the community doesn’t know that, so we have to go out of our way for them to get to know us in the non-enforcement contexts. So that they understand that these are really good folks. You were to ask me to sum up in one word the people we look for when we hire, it’s people of character, who are going to do the right thing.

Becoming the chief

Dennis Burns, right, is sworn in as Palo Alto’s new Police Chief by former Secretary of State George Shultz on Nov. 30, 2009.  File photo/Palo Alto Weekly.
Dennis Burns, right, is sworn in as Palo Alto’s new Police Chief by former Secretary of State George Shultz on Nov. 30, 2009. File photo/Palo Alto Weekly.

Q: It was a painful chapter and you took over as 2009, after a period of interim chief. There’s a national firestorm in the media. Are you daunted by the challenge?

A: There was no question about what we needed to do. Everything we do on a regular basis needs to have a focus on transparency, accountability, being fair and conducting ourselves in a laudable manner. In that sense, it was a lot, but it was also, OK, this is what we need to do. Credit to the folks who were here. We understood it, we had to own it and we couldn’t say, ‘This is Lynne’s problem.’ No, it is our problem. We are here today and we need to fix it.

Very, very concerned about how we operated but we had some good training and made some changes. I’m grateful for the way it worked out. We tried to have a little more of a presence in EPA in a non-enforcement end. People got to know us and they got to know, “They aren’t bad people.”

Q: I heard that at the first meeting there was some booing.

A: That was over a specific incident and some of the people there were upset about how that went down. They had some questions, and I don’t think I had done a good enough job answering their questions up until that point.

We had further conversations after that point, and I even found, in clearing out my desk, I found a letter that I wrote to one of the families, explaining what we had done and how we made some changes. I think that satisfied them. Part of it is just sitting down with people and leveling with them. Telling them what we know and what we can do. I think a lot of the time, people just want to be heard.

Q: Palo Alto has two oversight bodies: the Human Relations Commission (HRC), which has purview over police issues, and Independent Police Auditor Michael Gennaco. Do they make your life easier or more difficult? What impact do these extra levels of oversight have on your job?

A: I remember there was a discussion, it was Lynne and (City Manager) Frank Benest — they were trying to figure out the best way to have some oversight over the Police Department. They talked about the HRC. They tried to arrange for it to be that and ultimately, they said no it’s not a good use. Then we ended up with Gennaco.

I was assistant chief at the time and people were asking, ‘What are we going to do with this thing?’ We are going to do the exact same thing we’ve been doing. We’ll do very thorough, objective investigations and at the end of the investigation, we’ll present it to them. They’ll do a report on it and maybe they’ll ask us to do a little more work or they may ask us why we didn’t do a, b or c and we may have an interactive thing.

But they do an amazing job. Mike Gennaco is like Michael Jordan of police auditors. I’ve had some conversations with him. I don’t think we ever had a disagreement about findings or what we did, or that we’re missing stuff. My concern is that he puts a lot of details in those things, probably more so in any other auditor’s report in the state of California. I can tell you that with a fair amount of certainty because there is this thing called NACOL — National Association for Civilian Oversight for Law Enforcement –they have a website with links to every police oversight body in the state of California. Ours by far — by far! — are the most detailed.

At the end of the day, I think the transparency is valuable. It’s valuable because these are the people who are watching the cops and the cops, hopefully, are monitoring themselves.

Q: But he doesn’t give officers’ names.

A: That’s the point. He says the citizen on the 1300 block of Emerson doesn’t know the officer’s name. But we go to great length, we bend over backwards to really make these investigations be confidential. Sometimes people might get a sense of what’s going on but they won’t know until six months later, when they read it in a newspaper. I think they go into a lot of detail.

But at the end of the day, I think the transparency is valuable. It’s valuable because these are the people who are watching the cops and the cops, hopefully, are monitoring themselves.

Q: Taser incidents are one thing, but many of the incidents he writes about are little antics that you can find people in other jobs doing elsewhere. The scrutiny for police officers is obviously much higher, but is the concern that having too many details make the incidents seem too salacious and give us too much fodder?

A: The goal isn’t so much what the infraction that the officer is investigated for. The goal is to say: Did the supervisors and managers at the police department thoroughly look at the incident or this complaint? Did they take the investigative steps that you’d expect and are their findings appropriate and objective and consistent with what you’d expect to see.

That’s really my only — my only — concern and only because investigations are difficult for the people conducting investigations and certainly for the person who is the subject officer. And if we can — I don’t want to say protect them — but avoid too many of those details, I think that would be good.

Q: You were a non-voting member on the Taser task force about 10 years ago and there was a decision made to go forth with Tasers. What were your thoughts on Tasers? In your view, how did that work out?

A: I’m the one who brought them to Lynne because it’s an intermediate use of force. Again, whenever possible I’d certainly want to avoid using deadly force. I think having that option and not needing it is better than needing it and not having it. I’m glad we went through the public vetting, the scrutiny. There were some people who were very concerned.

Q: People like Aram James, who was also on the task force.

A: I agree with Aram on many things, but he was concerned and I get his concerns. He thought it could be fatal. I think if we have a very good policy and we train right and are very thoughtful about when we use them and really, they are at the higher end.

Q: Are you pretty satisfied with how that decision turned out?

A: I am. In 2016, I think used them like twice. And in 2015, I want to say we also used them twice. So I think the vetting process was good. I think it’s great that we send them to our man there, Mr. Gennaco, and he gets to see what a great job our folks do. Not only the folks involved in the use of force, but how we document it and the thorough, high-quality of the investigation. He is a very reasonable guy.

Rising surveillance, sanctuary cities

Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns stands on Dec. 29 in his office at City Hall on his last day of work before retiring. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.
Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns stands on Dec. 29 in his office at City Hall on his last day of work before retiring. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.

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. East Palo Alto is one, Palo Alto isn’t. What is the police department’s current policy for dealing with immigration-enforcement officials and do you think being a sanctuary city will change things in any significant way?

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: How is that different from sanctuary city? That’s a de facto sanctuary city, right?

A: I’m not exactly sure. I’ll be honest, what that standards and what the requirements are for being considered a sanctuary city, I’m not sure exactly. It might be something that the council wants to adopt and wants to be known is.

Q: But if it’s the current policy, sounds like the practical effect will be negligible, just in terms of protecting of immigrants. There might be effects on other things, like federal funding, but as far as how immigrants are treated in the community, the designation 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. Someone’s immigration status plays no role in that.

The exception was the one time, I was contacted by Immigration. We had this murderer out. Hakjoo Kim — this girl — she was renting a house to this guy named Peter Wilson. Peter beat her to death. Peter Wilson was not his real name and he had a really thick Middle Eastern accent.

Eventually, we figured out who he was and we needed to tell the judge what his immigration status was so that he can make an appropriate decision in terms of bail because we didn’t want him skipping after his arrest.

Q: So there was a practical point.

A: Right. We can’t care less about it. 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 is 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 other issue I wanted to ask about is surveillance. The council has been talking about the idea of having a citywide policy that would govern any kind of new technology — whether on a broad policy that would apply to everything or pertaining to specific technologies. Are you comfortable with the department’s current policies on surveillance equipment? And I realize Palo Alto doesn’t have drones and that you guys don’t use your one license plate reader, right?

A: It doesn’t get a lot of use. It’s a very sophisticated piece of technology, which isn’t always operational.

Q: Should people be concerned though that these things exist or do you think the policies in place are effective in making sure that people’s privacy isn’t being violated?

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.

Another example — it’s kind of different, but to me it’s the same — are law-enforcement computers. They have all kinds of information about people. … We actually have our people sign a document every six months, that says — “As an employee of the Police Department I have access to this of information but I will only use it in an appropriate, prescribed manner.” 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. And it will help everyone understand…

Q: You guys just have the best toys…

A: Well, Utilities has pretty good toys. And Fire — Fire has the best toys.

Q: I think one of the concerns is the future technologies that you can’t predict now. Drones are not future, but Palo Alto doesn’t have them. But should the next chief decide to get drones or start to use the license plate reader more often, do you think the current policies do enough to safeguard those types of things? Are they broad enough to encompass what’s to come?

A: I think so, I really do. And I think at the same time I think it’s fair for the council and the public to expect that the City is going to be open and proactive about explaining — we have this technology and this is how it’s done and this is how we’re going to use it.

Q: Santa Clara County adopted a new policy on surveillance, now requiring annual reports basically saying, we used this technology this many times. There was some pushback from the Sheriff’s Office, with some saying it would be too onerous. Do you see the requirement for regular reporting as a feasible step?

A: If you went for a drone for some reason — like for firefighting, I think it would be a great tool. If you’re a BC (battalion chief), you can sit in the back of a Suburban there and look at a screen and say, “This is how we need to attack this thing.” You can send out a tweet, or you can send out a press release and say, “We used a drone on this fire and afterwards we destroyed any footage. It’s not being retained for anything.”

I get that people have concerns about their privacy. I think we need to make sure that we let them know what it is and what it’s not being used for if we decide to adopt some of the more powerful technology.

Burns’ next chapter in life

Among his duties as Palo Alto's top cop, Chief Dennis Burns addresses the crowd gathered for a memorial tribute for Palo Alto’s three fallen officers and the installation of the Palo Alto Police Officers Memorial Grove on May 15, 2014, at Cogswell Plaza in downtown.  Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.
Among his duties as Palo Alto’s top cop, Chief Dennis Burns addresses the crowd gathered for a memorial tribute for Palo Alto’s three fallen officers and the installation of the Palo Alto Police Officers Memorial Grove on May 15, 2014, at Cogswell Plaza in downtown. Photo by Veronica Weber/Palo Alto Weekly.

Q: Speaking of the future, 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.

Q: Do you still do any running?

A: I don’t. I could but I’ve had like three knee surgeries so I’d like to keep the meniscus I had left.

Q: But you still caught the purse-snatcher on a bike in 2009?

A: I think we had some help on that one.

Q: Let’s talk about rappelling from buildings. You were recently raising money for charity by climbing down buildings? What prompted that and why would a guy with a heart murmur want to rappel of a building?

A: You know, the heart murmur thing is pretty benign. Someone asked me to do this. One of our agents, Marianna Villaescusa, said, Hey would you do this? She said, “If you do the rappelling part, I’ll do the fundraising part.”

Q: Did it freak you out?

A: You know, I have a great respect for height. And gravity has got a very unique impact on me.

Q: I’m pretty sure it’s not unique.

A: But it was interesting. It was in a hotel up in the city. And it was so high that it was like airplane high. So you look out the window, and it’s like, “I don’t feel any anxiety at all.” But it was fun. And I did one here for a Christmas “seasons greetings” event.

Q: Will you be doing that anymore?

A: I’d do it for the right reasons. I get a kick out of it. The worst part is hooking your leg over the edge and then kind of getting set with the rope and having the rope on you. As soon as you do your first your couple of steps and go down, it’s fine.

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