Burgreen Picked to Be Chief; Reprimands in Past, He Says
Bob Burgreen, a San Diego police officer for 28 years and assistant chief the past 10, was chosen Wednesday to become chief of police.
In making his selection, City Manager John Lockwood said he is turning to someone who is “exceptionally well-qualified to lead the San Diego Police Department during the coming years.”
“There was just no reason to skip over Bob,” the city manager said. “I’m comfortable with his policies. And I think those policies are consistent with the views of the community.”
Council Promises Plenty of Questions
The appointment is subject to City Council approval, and some council members indicated Wednesday that Burgreen will be in for sharp questioning when the council meets Monday afternoon.
“I want to ask him a lot of questions,” Councilman Ron Roberts said. “I’m looking forward to the confirmation hearing so I can get my own level of comfort up that this is the right choice.”
Burgreen, 49, was picked to head a 1,850-officer police department that in recent years has struggled with serious community-relations problems and a rising crime rate because of an increase in drug and gang activity.
Chosen from among four in-house candidates and one police official from outside San Diego, Burgreen said he is “overwhelmed” at the opportunity to succeed his longtime boss, Bill Kolender. Kolender resigned from his post in July after 13 years to accept a job with the Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
“I’m thrilled,” said Burgreen, who gave Lockwood a five-year commitment as police chief. “This is what I’ve grown up doing. This is what I love. This is what I eat and breathe. I’m going to hate to go home at night.”
Two years ago, Burgreen and Kolender were reprimanded by Lockwood for their roles in fixing traffic tickets and improperly using city personnel and equipment.
Specifically, Burgreen was chastised by Lockwood for using city video equipment to film fishing trips. But, on Wednesday, Lockwood said Burgreen has overcome those past mistakes.
‘No Recurrences’ and No Doubts
“Since that time, there have been absolutely no recurrences, and I don’t have any concern about that whatsoever,” the city manager said.
Burgreen put it this way:
“Those problems were a learning process for me. I made some mistakes. And, when faced with the fact that I had done some things that were questionable, I openly admitted it. I publicly took a thrashing. I showed that I could face up, tell the truth and survive.”
Burgreen’s nomination came while he was also a finalist for police chief of Little Rock, Ark., an area of the country where he has said he would like to retire.
Burgreen said Wednesday that, had he not been nominated for chief here, he definitely would have left San Diego and accepted the chief’s job in Little Rock if it had been offered. He said he has withdrawn from consideration there.
“To be frank about it, I didn’t want to be assistant chief of police any more,” he said.
Burgreen said he will choose one of his four deputy chiefs as assistant chief next week if the council confirms his nomination. But he said he plans to be the city’s top law enforcement officer.
“My strategy is to be a hands-on chief,” he said. “The day is passed when we can have a chief who is not intimately aware of what is going on in the beat cars, in the detective units, with our equipment--and also have the same kind of feeling with what is going on in our communities.”
He noted that, as the city has grown, so has the demand for police services.
“Everyone wants more police,” he said. “Auto theft is completely out of sight. Homicides are the highest we’ve ever seen. We simply have to start attacking those problems.”
Deputy Chief Norm Stamper said Burgreen has learned from his errors, and has become a much better leader because of it.
“As far as I’m concerned, when we get tested in that way and we survive that test and grow from it, that’s a real mark of personal maturity,” Stamper said.
He and the other three deputy chiefs said they would support Burgreen. None of them said they are seeking work elsewhere, but Lockwood described them as “hot properties” should another city come looking for a police chief.
“We’ve all grown up together, and we all know how each other feels,” Deputy Chief Mike Rice said. “And I’m personally tickled pink that Bob got the job.”
Burgreen, a Helix High School graduate, joined the Police Department in 1960. He was promoted to sergeant six years later and quickly rose to lieutenant and captain.
For 10 years he has worked in the shadow of Kolender. And, when Kolender stepped down, Burgreen was immediately selected acting chief.
He is an avid bass fisherman and lives in La Mesa.
Trying to Lose Weight
Over the years, he has gained weight, and this summer he joined a new Police Department fitness program geared to keeping all ranks of police personnel in shape.
“I’ve lost 10 pounds in two weeks,” he said Wednesday, laughing. “I’m up to 30 sit-ups and that’s an all-time record for me.”
Although Burgreen has been close to the top as assistant chief for 10 years, he is not that well-known by some council members.
Councilman Wes Pratt, for instance, said he has serious concerns about how Burgreen would improve police community relations and slow the rising crime rate.
“I haven’t made up my mind on Burgreen,” Pratt said. “I want an assessment from the community. I want to know his philosophy. I want to know how he’s going to improve the Police Department and make it representative of the entire city. I have some very specific issues to discuss with him.”
Pratt said he is disturbed about the reprimand from two years ago.
“That concerns me,” he said. “This position has to have the integrity that is commensurate with it. The police chief has got to be the person to set the tone and set the pace. Burgreen is going to have to demonstrate to all of the council members that he can set that vision and that he has the creativity and desire to make this as good a Police Department as it should be.”
Councilman Roberts said he does not think the reprimand is a reason in itself to vote against confirming Burgreen as chief, but he added: “I’d feel a lot better if it wasn’t there.”
Lockwood said the major task facing Burgreen will be to heal “a lack of confidence in the community,” particularly in the black and Hispanic neighborhoods where there has been an increase in police shootings and a growing distrust of police officers.
“That’s going to be his No. 1 priority, and I think he can do it,” Lockwood said.
Burgreen conceded that community relations have soured in recent years.
‘Attacks Always Come’
“The attacks always come,” he said. “After all, we carry guns, we put people in jail and occasionally we take people’s lives. And there’s always some people who object to all of that.
“But you can’t allow yourself to take that criticism and those comments personally.”
He said he will reach out to community leaders, maintaining an open-door policy in which problems can be solved before they grow out of control. He said he wants to meet regularly with community leaders to exchange ideas.
“They’re going to have my home phone number,” he said. “They’re going to have my pager number. When a problem is developing, I want to talk to them.”
And some community leaders, including those who have been critical of the Police Department in the past, expressed a willingness Wednesday to work with Burgreen.
Roberto Martinez, co-chairman of the Coalition for Law and Justice, said Burgreen will monitor day-to-day operations much more closely than did Kolender.
“We hope we don’t see a perpetuation of Kolender’s policies and bad habits in Burgreen,” Martinez said. “He seems to be wanting to improve the way the department is run. No one, not even the administrators at 14th and Broadway, saw much of Kolender. He was always on the go instead of minding the store, and that’s one thing we hope never happens again.”
The Rev. George Walker Smith, spokesman for the Civilian Advisory Panel on Police Practices, said Burgreen will make “a very good chief.”
“Bob is open, and he’s candid,” Smith said. “He’s very fair, and that’s what we need in a police chief.”
Lt. Skip DiCerchio, a spokesman for the Police Officers Assn., said the rank-and-file officers will support Burgreen.
“He came up through the ranks,” DiCerchio said. “He’s done their jobs, too. He’s walked in their shoes.”
Kolender, who now is a manager for the Union-Tribune Publishing Co., said Burgreen is “a leader. . . . You’ll see it loud and clear.”
And Burgreen, asked what it will be like to succeed the popular Kolender as police chief, said: “It’s like playing center field after Willie Mays retires. I’ve learned so much from that man, and I will continue to seek his advice.”