Burbank Commentary

The Salt Lake Tribune Gets It Right: The Ouster of (alas, now Former) Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank

Ken K. Gourdin

Note: As promised, in the interest of even-handed fairness, while my previous entry was an analysis of why I believe the Tribune is mistaken in its editorial opinion regarding former West Valley City Detective Shaun Cowley, this one is an analysis of an instance in which I believe the Tribune got it right. I have read the letter from the mayor’s Chief of Staff to Chief Burbank, and I hope to have a separate response to that letter.

* * *

The Salt Lake Tribune recently editorialized against Mayor Ralph Becker’s forcing former Salt Lake City Police Department Chief Chris Burbank to resign, allegedly (at least in part) for Burbank’s handling of sexual harrassment complaints against former Deputy Chief Rick Findlay.1 The Tribune’s editorial notes:

Burbank could be accused of having a blind spot on women’s issues, including the sexual harassment charges and a perceived failure to aggressively pursue old rape cases. But the chief often distinguished himself, his department and the city with progressive policing that stresses peaceful resolutions and open relations with all segments of a community. He stood against the militarization of civil police forces and wanted no part of the irrational drive to turn local cops into immigration enforcers. . . .

Even if it was time for Burbank to go, he had earned better than being sacrificed in Ralph Becker’s Game of Thrones.

Whatever one thinks of Chief Burbank’s handling of the Findlay case (personally, a part of me can’t help but be disappointed at the possibility that he “slow-walked” his response to it to allow Findlay to retire with full benefits. While, in this instance, apparently, it was not the investigation itself that was protracted but, rather, Chief Burbank’s response, even officers accused of reprehensible conduct deserve rights, procedural protections, and due process, and that’s one reason why investigations of such incidents often are quite lengthy), I don’t believe anything Burbank did would have prevented the women victimized by Findlay from filing suit. Sexual harrassment in the police department, to say nothing of such harrassment in law enforcement in general, didn’t begin with Findlay, and the possibility of such harrassment recurring—even if measures are taken to ensure that it is greatly diminished—won’t end now simply because he’s gone.

Tribune columnist Paul Rolly also recently wrote in support of Burbank.2 Rolly calls Burbank “a cop’s cop who stood solidly behind his officers when he believed they deserved it. But he was a disciplinarian when he had to be and balked at legislative proposals to turn his officers into illegal-immigration enforcers.” Rolly also notes that Burbank, unlike several of his predecessors, had a good relationship with the media, and that there has been a relative lack of controversy in the Burbank administration as compared with that of several previous chiefs.

Rolly also lauds Burbank’s bridge-building and tension-easing efforts between his agency and the community. He writes:

Burbank’s personal involvement with angry protesters on more than one occasion calmed the standoffs and helped prevent them from turning violent. He had a simple charge for officers assigned near downtown’s Temple Square during the LDS Church’s twice-yearly General Conferences — when anti-Mormon ranters sometimes harassed and insulted Latter-day Saints: Treat everybody respectfully, protect everybody’s rights to freedom of speech and religion and maintain an environment where nobody has to be arrested. When I observed those confrontations, the police lived up to that command.

Of the harrassment complaints against Findlay, Rolly noted the interesting timing of the mayor’s action. He writes, “[T]hat all transpired a year ago, and Becker remained relatively silent about it until this summer, when the women notified the city of their intent to sue.” While acknowledging possible or probable lapses on Burbank’s part, Rolly also writes, “He was a cop’s cop and stood solidly behind his officers when he believed they deserved it. But he was a disciplinarian when he had to be and balked at legislative proposals to turn his officers into illegal-immigration enforcers.”

Whatever one thinks of Chief Burbank’s stance on immigration enforcement, I recently commented as follows in response to another poster who was critical of Burbank for that stance:

You may disagree, but there are reasons good and sound (or at least, a sound argument can be made) for why Chief Burbank refused to turn Salt Lake Police officers into immigration agents. Doing so would seriously have impacted the level of trust between the police and a large segment or subset of the community, potentially making the investigation and prosecution of all crimes more difficult and, by extension, making all citizens of the community less safe.3

In addition to his stance on (non-)enforcement of immigration laws by local law enforcement, Chief Burbank also caught heat from the public for his (alleged mis-)handling of the case of Officer Brett Olsen, who shot a dog while searching for a missing child. I commented on the case by drawing a parallel between it and the case of Destiny Norton, a young girl whom police tragically failed to find before her abductor killed her:

Officers seem “damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.” Salt Lake police were criticized for failing to find Destiny Norton before her terribly unfortunate demise. Had action such that which Olsen took been necessary to find Norton alive, critics, recognizing that no the life of no pet (however beloved) is worth a child’s life, would have demanded that officers take it.4

The Norton case, notwithstanding its tragic outcome, is another example of Chief Burbank’s leadership. Understandably, her family was devastated and frustrated. When a family member lashed out at Burbank during a press conference by spitting in his face, he was a textbook example of adherence to the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. That Code invites its adherents and aspirants to “maintain . . . calm in the face of . . . scorn or ridicule” and to “develop self-restraint.” What did Burbank do when confronted with this serious slight? He didn’t miss a beat: he simply ignored it and kept . . . right . . . on . . . speaking.

Burbank also caught heat in heavily-Mormon Utah for suspending former Officer Eric Moutsos, who attempted to trade assignments with someone else after Moutsos was assigned to ride in the department’s motorcycle squad as it performed precision maneuvers in the city’s gay pride parade. While I’m not necessarily a Chief Burbank apologist in this instance, and while Moutsos’s subsequent resignation renders such issues moot in his particular case, to a certain extent, Burbank may have been caught between a rock and a hard place: take one action and risk sending the message that the police department and the community devalue gays and lesbians; take another action and risk violating his officers’ rights to conscience. I understand the need to maintain order and discipline in military and paramilitary organizations, as well as the reason why rank-and-file grunts overwhelmingly follow the orders given them by their superiors.

Whether Chief Burbank’s action in the Moutsos matter is proper depends, at least in part, on how much of a precedent there is for allowing officers to trade assignments in this and other circumstances. If there is such a precedent, then Burbank should have taken care to ensure that the opportunity to trade is not denied arbitrarily or capriciously. Moutsos says he simply requested a change in assignment that would have allowed him to fulfill a less visible role in the gay pride parade. Burbank says Moutsos was ordered to fulfill his original assignment. Moutsos says he would have complied with such an order if it had been given. Some have accused Burbank of mischaracterizing Moutsos’s actions and motives. But, while it’s possible that Moutsos simply didn’t have the stomach for such a fight, if someone had so mischaracterized my actions and motives, I would have fought as long and as hard as necessary to clear my name and to correct the public record.

I had a limited interaction with Burbank when he was the administrative lieutenant for a previous chief (I believe it was Rick Dinse). One of my former cotenants in the Salt Lake City apartment in which I was living at the time decided to punctuate his disagreement and displeasure with me by breaking a window out of my car. After an officer came and took a report of the incident (while I understand that it was relatively minor and would not have received high priority) I contacted the department to express concern over a response time that was over two hours. Notwithstanding the incident’s relatively minor nature, then-Lieutenant Burbank took my concern seriously. He struck me as wonkish, in the very best sense of that word. He conducted a statistical analysis comparing response times to similar incidents for, I believe, the previous year, and determined that the response time to my report was slightly longer than the average.

The bottom line about Burbank, I think, is this. Sometimes, the best barometer of whether someone in public service and who has been bestowed public trust is doing a good job is the number of people who are pleased with him: sometimes, he can be sure he’s doing a good job when, say, a third of those he serves are neutral, a third favor his actions, and a third oppose them; and sometimes, he can be sure he’s doing a good job when the favor-oppose split is roughly equal; but sometimes, depending on the principles involved and the reasons for opposition, he can be sure he’s doing a good job even when the majority of those he serves oppose him. Chief Burbank may have faced that last circumstance with respect to both his stance on immigration enforcement by local police and his handling of the Moutsos matter. In any event, whatever mistakes he made, with respect to his ouster, I think Burbank is right: essentially, he has been sacrificed on the altar of electoral politics. Salt Lake City, its police department, the state of Utah, and law enforcement in general are all the poorer for it. The Tribune got this one right.

END NOTES

1.

Editorial (June 13, 2015), “Salt Lake City chief deserved better exit,” The Salt Lake Tribune, accessed on line at http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/2618314-155/editorial-salt-lake-city-chief-deserved on June 15, 2015.

2.

Paul Rolly (June 13, 2015), “Why Salt Lake City is going to miss Chief Burbank,” The Salt Lake Tribune, accessed on line at http://www.sltrib.com/home/2618203-155/rolly-why-salt-lake-city-is on June 15, 2015.

3.

Id., in comments following Rolly’s piece.

4.

Ken K. Gourdin (July 7, 2014) “Officer criticized for shooting dog: ‘Geist’ shooting should be kept in perspective” (Blog post), accessed on line at the following address on June 15, 2015: https://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/officer-criticized-for-shooting-dog/.

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About kenngo1969

Just as others must breathe to live, I must write. I have been writing creatively almost ever since I learned to write, period! I have written fiction, book- and article-length nonfiction, award-winning poetry, news, sports, features, and op-eds. I hope, one day, to write some motivational nonfiction, a decent-selling novel, a stage play, and a screen play.
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