That's really what our role is: Anytime a police officer shows up, we should make the situation better.
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."
After his schooling days were over, Chris Burbank ran the Pro Shop in the old Deseret Gym. That's where he met the family of world champion squash player Hashim Khan. Not only did they teach him the sport of squash, but Burbank said he also got a lot of education in Islamic culture.
As a child, a career in law enforcement was not something Burbank ever considered. It was something he didn't grow up around. After all, his parents were ballet dancers and the Lee's Main Stage at Pioneer Memorial Theatre was named after Burbank's grandfather.
But after he got married, Burbank said he needed a "real job" and was talked into taking an entrance exam by a group of officers from the Salt Lake Motor Squad. He took the exam, along with 1,000 other people in 1991, and passed.
When he told his grandmother he was going to become a police officer, her initial response was, "Why would you want to do that?" Burbank recalled with a smile.
Michael Burbank recalled recently someone commented to his mother that she really knew how to raise police officers.
"That was never our intent," Burbank's mother jokingly replied.
But Michael Burbank said the work ethic of his parents, and their attitude of putting others before themselves, was something that his older brother took with him and still uses today.
"I don't know if I necessarily thought he would be the police chief one day," Michael Burbank said.
But the fact that he has succeeded as police chief doesn't surprise him. Even today, he said his brother is someone he can call on for advice.
"He's always been a leader since he's been on police force," Michael Burbank said.
Chris Burbank has spent his entire career with the Salt Lake Police Department and is a true case of starting at the bottom and rising through the ranks. He served on the gang unit at the time when gangs were on the rise in Salt Lake City in the 1990s. He was a sergeant on the downtown bike squad. He also served as a member of the SWAT team for eight years and was at every major incident in the city in the 1990s, including the shooting at the Family History Library in 1999, the standoff at a Salt Lake Taco Bell in 1995 where 12 people were held hostage, and the hostage standoff at the old Salt Lake City Library in 1994 in which 10 people were held for five hours.
Dobrowolski was hired at the same time as Burbank and the two worked graveyards together. He remembers they would sometimes joke about what things would be like "if we were running this place."
"Never in a million years, neither one of us thought we'd be chief," he said.
After Burbank moved over to SWAT, and Dobrowolski moved into narcotics, Burbank became the sergeant over Debrowolski's squad. It was then that Burbank's leadership style began to show through.
"We all respected him. He knew we knew how to do our jobs," he said.
It was during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that Burbank began to take even more of a leadership role. His mentor was then-Chief Rick Dinse, who became Salt Lake's top cop in 2000 after a 34-year law enforcement career in Los Angeles, some of that under the command of Chief Daryl Gates.
Dinse's six years as chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department included a string of extremely high profile incidents that catapulted the department into the national spotlight. After the 2002 Olympics, the department was faced with the high profile cases of Elizabeth Smart and Lori Hacking.
Burbank became Dinse's chief executive officer, and ironically dealt a lot with Dobrowolski, who became president of the Salt Lake police union. It was during that era that Dinse made many positive changes to the department, he said.
When Dinse in 2005 announced his plans to retire, Burbank said the thought of applying for his mentor's job crossed his mind, though he thought it would be a long shot.
"If you never try, you're never going to get it," Burbank told himself.
In 2006, Burbank was sworn in as the new police chief at the age of 39, one of the youngest police chiefs in the department's history.
"If I had to script my retirement, I would not have done it in a better way," Dinse said at Burbank's swearing-in ceremony. "He has risen in this department by his own skill and maturity. ... He proved himself to be every bit the leader he is and will be. I can't think of anyone better prepared to assume this position. ... He is going to take this police department to new levels."
Burbank's enjoyment of getting out and talking to citizens was something he wanted all his officers to do. The idea of pulling officers off the streets and putting them solely into fast cars only created a greater distrust of officers among citizens, he said. When Burbank would go to talk to elementary school students and ask them who wanted to be a police officer when they grew up, all the students would raise their hands. But when he would talk to the middle school students, none of them would raise their hands.
"Why is that? What is that change that takes place there?" Burbank would ask himself.
When Burbank talks to junior high and high school groups today, he makes sure they have an understanding that they all have rights. Sometimes students will ask Burbank why he's telling them how to get out of a ticket. But Burbank said that's not the case at all.
"This is what you can do when the cop stops you, this is what your rights are. You have civil rights that you ought to know. It's important to be a member of society. This is what you expect from law enforcement, fair treatment. And if you don't get fair treatment, here are the avenues; you can actually contact the police department and let us know. You have teenagers that don't understand there is a system in place that governs how law enforcement acts with the community," he said.
Burbank was also a popular choice for chief among the rank-and-file. But not all of his policies have been popular with everyone in the public or even other departments.
The chief's stand on the immigration issue has stirred much debate. He does not believe his officers should be cross-deputized as immigration officers. His policies, he said, deal with local law enforcement only and have nothing to do with border patrol issues. Stopping and questioning someone locally based solely on their skin color is profiling, Burbank said.
"When we treat individuals differently based on race or ethnicity, that is biased. Racial profiling, biased policing, it's inherently wrong and unconstitutional," he said in 2010.
Despite the volumes of hate mail Burbank received over his stand on immigration, he said it was an easy decision for him. He insists he has always tried to run his department by making the decisions that are correct, not the ones that will garner the greatest public approval.
"I decide things on what I believe to be right," he said.
It's the philosophy Burbank has tried to use his entire law enforcement career.
"What you get with Chris, he's always going to be coming at it from a good place," Michael Burbank said.
His older brother will always look at something from the other perspective to try and figure out what kind of middle ground can be reached, he said. Sometimes that can be seen as controversial because police want to be seen as being in control.
"Ultimately, if someone is breaking the law, we'll take them to jail. The tone of how that mission is accomplished can be very different," Sgt. Burbank said. "Chris will always do his job that he's sworn to do. But he will look at the big picture and see what effect it's having on the community as a whole before we take action."
It was that philosophy that prompted Dobrowolski to put the union aside for promotions and a chance to be assistant chief. He said today, Burbank's style really isn't that different from when he was a street cop.
"What I like is he doesn't want to be surrounded by yes men," Dobrowolski said. "He's contemplative and will listen to other side. He's willing to let you disagree with him. It's the sign of a good leader.
"He's very much got a human side. Business is business and business is important, but he understands our most valuable asset is our employees."
Dobrowolski said Chris Burbank tries to select the right people for the right job and empower them. "He wants people who will take risks to make the organization better, he said.
The hardest decisions Burbank said he has to make are the ones that deal with his own employees.
"One of the hardest things to do is look at employees and tell them, 'You're doing a great job, but you're getting a pay cut,' or 'You're not going be a police officer anymore because of something you did.'"
Burbank admits he holds police officers to a higher standard than other citizens, and those with rank to an even higher standard.
"Every recruit gets the lecture that you will be held to a higher standard, and it may be unfair that the guy sitting next to you is going to be able to do more than you are because I expect more from you," Burbank said. "It's what you do when you're not wearing the uniform that counts as well."
Many employees feel what Burbank is doing is working.
"I personally think this is the best place the Salt Lake City Police Department has been in my career. We're moving forward with technology, we have the best relationship we've ever had with community, crime is down giving us time to do more innovative things. It's the best time in my career as far as where the police department is," Dobrowolski said.
After he is done being a police officer, Burbank said he isn't sure what he will do. But it definitely won't be running for an office or jumping into politics.22 comments on this story
"I struggle with partisan politics," he said.
Burbank enjoys skiing and being in the outdoors when he gets rare days off. But one thing you likely won't see Burbank do after his policing career is over, or even in his spare time, is jump back into the competitive world of squash.
"Squash is too frustrating," he said with a laugh. "I can't play like I used to."