'Civil' servant: Chief Chris Burbank strives to build relationships with community, do what he believes is right

Published: Saturday, Dec. 31 2011 1:00 p.m. MST

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank speaks with demonstrators who sit across the Trax line on 400 South and Main Street following the sentencing of Tim DeChristopher in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 26, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They are images that have gone viral on YouTube.

At the University of California-Davis campus, a police officer coats Occupy protesters with pepper spray as they block access for the officers.

At the University of California-Berkley, police with riot helmets use the butt end of their batons to forcefully jab unarmed male and a female students who had formed a blockade around their tents and refused to move.

In Salt Lake City, however, the recent scene was much different. Police had warned the Occupy Salt Lake group they would no longer be allowed to camp in Pioneer Park and their tents had to go. When the deadline came, a large showing of officers arrived at Pioneer Park, but not in riot gear.

In fact, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank, not raising his voice or yelling at protesters, politely asked each of them if they would like to be arrested. A total of 19 people were either arrested or cited and released.

It was a repeat of a similar scenario in July when people blocked traffic — including TRAX trains — while protesting the sentencing of environmental activist Tim DeChristopher outside the federal courthouse on Main Street. A total of 26 people were arrested. But the next day, both sides — even those arrested — gave praise to the other for the cordial way the situation was handled.

In both cases, the key, according to Burbank, was getting out and talking to the protesters and getting to know them before police action had to be taken. In many cases, he said the protesters told him beforehand they wanted to be arrested and carried away by officers in front of the media simply as a statement for their cause.

"If the police chief just shows up at the moment the event is happening, they become much more tense because I'm a stranger," Burbank said. "You develop that relationship before the situation arises and that way when the situation does come forward, you have something to fall back on because you understand each other, you've had that conversation."

Although there will still be situations when force, sometimes even deadly force, will be necessary, getting out and talking to people in the community has always been Burbank's style. When he was an officer, his philosophy was always "How can I improve a situation?" It's the same philosophy he uses today as chief.

"That's really what our role is: Anytime a police officer shows up, we should make the situation better," Burbank said.

Another saying Burbank uses frequently with his officers is: "It's not can I do it, but should I do it?" said Salt Lake City Deputy Police Chief Lee Dobrowolski.

The Salt Lake native's philosophy on policing comes from a man who did not grow up in a family of law enforcers but got into policing more by accident than anything else.

"I never had any ambition to be a police officer," Burbank admits.

In fact, if Burbank had had his way, his life would have taken a completely different career path. Burbank used to be a fanatical squash player — at one point even holding a top 40 world ranking in the World Professional Squash Association.

Chris Burbank was born in Salt Lake City and, outside of a brief time when his family moved to Newark, N.J. when he was a child, has lived in the Beehive State all his life. He is the oldest of three brothers. He graduated from East High School and the University of Utah.

In high school, Burbank — with his long and wavy hair — was active in basketball, soccer and baseball.

"I'd always tag along with him and his friends, playing basketball," said Mike Burbank, one of the chief's younger brothers who is also a sergeant with the Salt Lake City Police Department. "He's an example for me, a mentor for me."

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