A police chief who does it by a different book

In an era of social unrest about police practices, Salt Lake City Chief Chris Burbank tries to engage with the community to minimize conflicts. 

Rick Bowmer/AP
Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank speaks with reporters during a news conference Friday, March 28, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank sits in the city’s new Public Safety Building surrounded by awards and accolades on one side and large windows looking out over the streets he’s sworn to defend on the other. He spent 12 years of his life lobbying to have the glass-laden structure built downtown and overseeing its design, which for him is rife with meaning. 

“The openness of the building – it reflects my personality, my philosophy for policing,” Mr. Burbank says. “We want to participate. We want to be part of the community. It’s when we stand apart from [it] that we are very poor.”

In a nation swelling with social unrest surrounding the actions of law enforcement, Burbank is a community-minded chief known for seeking solutions to build and maintain trust. To be sure, this city of 191,000 isn’t as diverse as many: Just over 65 percent of the population identify as white, 22.3 percent as Hispanic, 4 percent as Asian, and 2.7 percent as black, according to the US Census Bureau. But, like any urban area, Salt Lake City has its share of tensions between police and residents, and Burbank tries to minimize the conflicts by keeping two constant goals in mind: to humanize police and ensure that his officers do their jobs without bias.

“You try and send messages to police officers and the community that there’s a better way to do business,” he says. “We want to avoid this polarization.”

For almost nine years, Burbank has made elevating the profession and perception of police officers in Salt Lake City a personal mission. The eldest child of ballet dancers, the Salt Lake native says he landed in law enforcement only after the need for a reliable paycheck ended his professional squash career. 

“Had I had the same ranking that I did in squash in tennis or golf, I wouldn’t be a police chief right now,” he says. 

After joining the department in 1991, he worked in a variety of units before taking on a leadership role during the 2002 Winter Olympics. When then-Chief Rick Dinse announced plans to retire, Burbank, the chief’s executive officer, applied for the position along with 97 other people. 

Rocky Anderson, who served as Salt Lake City’s mayor from 2000 to 2008, tapped Burbank, then age 40, to lead the department in 2006. “Chief Burbank exemplifies the kind of leadership that police departments ought to have in terms of his openness with the public, his lack of arrogance, and genuine civility,” Mr. Anderson says. “I also knew that he was the kind of person that would be courageous on controversial issues.” 

Case in point: Burbank was an early, vocal opponent of cross-deputizing his police officers for immigration enforcement.

“I don’t believe police officers should be engaged as immigration agents, because that sets us up to separate one segment of society from another,” he says. 

When the “Occupy Wall Street” movement came to Salt Lake City in 2011, protesters set up an encampment in Pioneer Park. After one of the demonstrators died from a mixture of drugs and carbon monoxide poisoning from a portable heater, the city decided to close down the camp. The police were called in, but the officers didn’t show up with batons, as in some other cities. Burbank came himself and talked the protesters through the eviction. 

The department does take communication with the public seriously. It hosts a monthly “coffee with a cop” event and maintains an active Twitter feed. The chief releases a monthly video message educating residents about various public safety programs and issues geared toward prevention. Burbank also goes into schools to talk to students about policing, during which he will often explain their basic rights when confronted by officers. At one meeting, he explained so much that some students thought he was actually teaching them how to wriggle out of traffic violations.

Even some groups normally critical of the police find the chief’s overall approach laudable. Although the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah has a lawsuit pending against the department relating to its gang suppression tactics, Karen McCreary, executive director of the agency, credits Burbank’s efforts to engage diverse groups.

“I think it’s just the nature of a civil rights organization and police that there is going to be tension,” she says. “We have a respectful relationship and value the way that the chief has led the police force in terms of having the orientation of serving the community.”

The Salt Lake City Police Foundation formed during Burbank’s tenure uses a portion of its funds to provide scholarships for local high school students who compete in an art competition focused on drug prevention. 

“I started this solely with the purpose of community interaction projects,” he says of the foundation.

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