With Bill Kolender officially retired, City Manager John Lockwood recommended 28-year veteran Bob Burgreen to take his place.
After his council confirmation Burgreen took office on July 30, 1989. He brought a wealth of experience to the top office having served the previous 10½ years as the assistant chief responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department.
At some point after taking office Burgreen had to have looked back with amazement he had made it so far. The only reason he became a police officer was because he couldn’t pass a handwriting exam to be accepted into his chosen profession, teaching. His career decision to become a cop came after he was overheard at a party complaining about the test and Alan Brown suggested trying something else.
Once in office, Burgreen made it made it known he would only serve five years before stepping down and allowing someone else the opportunity. After seeing the toll being a big city chief took on others, Burgreen felt the time limit would help combat burnout as well as the institutionalization that some police chiefs felt after serving too long in office.
One of Burgreen’s first decisions was to hold town hall meetings in which citizens could come to a neutral location and discuss their concerns. The program proved to be positive but touchy. The issue of deadly force was beginning to be raised within the community. Some citizens were asking if it was necessary for officers to use their guns in situations where they had not been shot at or the subject was armed with something other than a firearm. The concern had risen from two high profile cases where officers had shot individuals armed with a sharpened garden stake or a mason’s trowel.
Burgreen’s response to the concerns was to double the number of police canine units on the street. In addition, a study was begun to determine if officers could use other methods when it came to dealing with combative suspects.
One thing that came of Burgreen’s meetings was his discovery that despite some citizens desire to grovel over everything the police department did, the number of citizens who wanted to partner with the police to improve the quality of life far outweighed the complainers. This would later prove to be a crucial element as Burgreen began to implement neighborhood-policing concepts throughout the city.
The idea of neighborhood policing was not new. Burgreen and Assistant Chief Norm Stamper had actually discussed the concept many years before but it wasn’t well received. Now with the public asking for ways to get involved with the police department, Burgreen decided the time to implement it was now.
Teaming officers and citizens through community meetings, police began to take a different look at how to solve crime issues. What may not have been a traditional law enforcement problem such as an abandoned house, was made a police issue when officers discovered removing it through civil code enforcement could solve the problems of drug and gang activity such a location might attract. In effect, officers were hitting the problems before they started. Additionally, by citizens partnering with officers in anti graffiti paint outs and trash pickup the program empowered citizens to feel as though they could make a difference in protecting their own communities.
While community policing and town hall programs made Burgreen popular in the community and helped to lower the crime rate, the new chief quickly discovered why so many top police administrators burn out. He was regularly putting in 60-70 hour workweeks and was lucky to have one day off. Even though it was a schedule many before him worked, Burgreen may have had it a little easier than his predecessors in that he had a good working relationship with both the city manager and mayor. Burgreen would later comment, “I always knew who I worked for. If it ever came to a dispute that I couldn’t work through, I would have resigned.”
Despite his successful relationship with City Hall, Burgreen encountered what every other police chief before him had - a persistent lack of funding inhibiting the department from reaching its long-standing goal of 2.0 officers per thousand residents.
Three years into his term Burgreen experienced the downside to life at the top, the murder of Officer Ron Davis. He recalled, “It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I will never forget the look on Wendy Davis’ face when she answered the door at 6 am that morning. With a child in her arms and another standing next to her, it took her about a second before she recognized me then another second for her to say ‘Oh please God, please tell me its not that.’” When Burgreen left office in May 1993 he was able to look back and realized he accomplished a lot in five years. Community policing was being adapted, not only within the department, but also nationwide as a new way of doing business. At the recommendationNorman Stamper, Burgreen also eliminated the rank of Commander thereby reducing the amount of top brass from 13 positions to 8. The move was designed to not only save the department money but to also make it more streamlined.
Burgreen later said he underestimated his own energy level when he set the five-year limit. His planned retirement of fishing in Arkansas didn’t last too long before he found himself working 45 hours a week in volunteer organizations. He reflected, “It became obvious to me that I wasn’t ready to sit back in a rocking chair. I had too much energy and I wanted to be involved. And, after thirty two years as a San Diego cop, I missed police work.”
In 1996 Burgreen accepted the job as Chief of Police in Longview Washington. With a city population of 35,000 and an annual budget of six million dollars, Burgreen oversaw 52 officers and answered his own phone. He summed it up by saying “A small department is a lot different than a big department. That’s been a good lesson for me. I think by the time I hang it up here I will be ready to go fishing.”