Bob Burgreen, former SDPD dies at 69
By Greg Gross
UNION-TRIBUNE BREAKING NEWS TEAM
11:16 a.m. December 28, 2007
SAN DIEGO – Former San Diego police chief and Carlsbad native Bob Burgreen has died in a Los Angeles hospital, where he had undergone a lung transplant just over a week ago. He was 69.
Ken Fortier, former assistant San Diego police chief and a longtime friend of Burgreen's, said he died late Thursday night at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where he was being treated for pulmonary fibrosis. Burgreen, who retired to Arkansas in 1993 and three years later returned to law enforcement as top cop in Longview, Wash., had received the transplanted lung Dec. 19 and seemed to be recovering well, Fortier said.
"He was planning on getting out of the hospital this weekend,” Fortier said. “Just last night, he developed a problem; he had a pain in his chest, and he died.”
Burgreen graduated from Helix High School in La Mesa and earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from University of La Verne, south of Los Angeles, before joining the San Diego police force in 1960.
“I spoke with him the day before yesterday and he was fine. He was upbeat and joking with me. What a tragedy,” Kolender said Friday in a prepared statement, which said the two were close friends for 40 years.
“Bob was a decent, honest and caring friend.”
Kolender said he strongly recommended to the San Diego City Council that Burgreen succeed him.
“Bob had a unique capacity for seeing what needed to be done and carrying it through,” Kolender said. “He was an outstanding chief of police.”
Mayor Jerry Sanders, who followed Burgreen as chief, credited him with leading the department away from strictly reacting to police calls and working more closely with neighborhoods to take on chronic problems that often led to crimes.
That approach has since been embraced by scores of police agencies around the country.
“At a time when other organizations were doing reactive things, Bob allowed us to engage the community, problem-oriented policing,” the mayor said.
Burgreen also got retirees involved with the police force through RSVP, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program. “Not many people remember that Bob started RSVP,” Sanders said. “I think there are still about 500 of them who go out and do a huge number of things to benefit the department. It's had a huge impact.” In 1990, Burgreen faced criticism about an increase in officer-involved shootings. He instituted less-lethal alternatives, and within two years the number of police shootings dropped dramatically.
Burgreen made a point of trying to bring more people of color into the department, including its upper ranks – to the irritation of some white officers who felt their own career advancement was hindered as a result.
“We're a multicultural place,” he said in a March 1992 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, noting he had heard and heeded criticisms about the department's all-white top brass. “Things will look different around here, let me assure you.”
The Rev. George Walker Smith, the San Diego minister who founded the weekly Catfish Club lunchtime speakers' bureau, remembered Burgreen as one of the most effective chiefs to manage the San Diego Police Department.
“He was a good, fair and honest person who did not abuse his position as police chief,” said Smith, who has known most of the city's leaders firsthand going back decades.
“He was a guy that treated everybody the way they should be treated,” Smith said. “He was a person of great integrity.”
Burgreen's most controversial decision came in 1992, when he ended a nearly 30-year affiliation between the department's Explorer program and the Boy Scouts of America because of the Scouts' ouster of a gay El Cajon police officer from an Explorer leadership post.
Burgreen compared the decision to racial-separation practices prior to the civil-rights movement. But the decision cost him some popularity among many officers who had ties to the Explorer program.
When Burgreen and his wife, Kathy, left San Diego for their lakefront Arkansas retirement property, he planned to spend time golfing and fishing. But he found he wasn't quite ready for the life of leisure.
Within two years, he had so many volunteer commitments – Boys & Girls Club, church, bank board, development board – he was rising at 6 a.m. andworking 45 hours a week. In 1996, he returned to law enforcement as police chief in Longview, a city near the Oregon border.
“The fun part of it is I have gone back to more of a hands-on operation,” Burgreen said in a 2002 Union-Tribune interview. “I answer my own phone and I write my own letters.”
In Longview, Burgreen began police diversity training and created the city's first minority task force, engaging blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays and lesbians in meetings and town-hall gatherings. He stepped down again, this time in June 2004, retiring to Palm Desert.
Even in retirement, however, he remained involved with public safety.
“Until he got sick, he had a contract with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to go out to disaster scenes and work with victims,” Fortier said, adding that Burgreen had gone to Mississippi on FEMA's behalf to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.
It was a perfect fit for Burgreen's personable nature, Fortier said.
“The guy was extremely good with people,” Fortier said. “He was very good at keeping people going in the right direction.”