COLUMBIA — After nearly eight months of searching, Kenneth Burton, police chief of Haltom City, Texas, has been chosen to lead the Columbia Police Department.
City Manager Bill Watkins said Burton's experience as a police chief made the difference in choosing him over the other finalist, Kansas City Police Major Christine Laughlin.
- 1999-2001: deputy police chief, Arlington, Texas (population 60,000)
- 2001-2003: police chief, Bryan, Texas (population 60,000)
- 2003-2009: police chief, Haltom City, Texas (population 40,000)
EDUCATION: bachelor's degree in law enforcement and police science at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, 1977
"Either of the two final candidates would make a great chief," Watkins said. “But his experience as a police chief makes a difference, I think. It's a difference between being a major, which is the third level down, and being the No. 1 person."
Burton has more than seven years of police chief experience, having served as Haltom City police chief since 2003 and, before that, as police chief starting in 2001 of Bryan City, Texas, a community near Texas A&M University.
Burton, 53, will start work in Columbia the first week of April and will be paid $135,000 annually, Watkins said. Burton is currently being paid $124,000 by Haltom City.
His emphasis on community policing, something Burton defines as maintaining open channels of communication with the community, was another selling point for Watkins. Also important in Watkins' decision was Burton's focus on geographic policing, a statistics-based technique that identifies high-crime areas within the community. Burton has used the technology since 1997.
"We want to provide good customer service and involve the community being policed," Burton said. "(We try to find) nontraditional solutions to try and solve problems long term."
He succeeds former Columbia Police Chief Randy Boehm, who retired in July after serving nearly 32 years in the Police Department to become manager of security at MU Health Care. Boehm's salary at retirement was $100,000.
The transition to a new police chief from outside the department with little knowledge of the community will take time and be difficult at first, Interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said.
"He has a learning curve, and he needs to adapt that to being the CEO of this police agency," Dresner said "He doesn’t know the city of Columbia or the Police Department. We are going to do the best we can to make the transition as smooth as possible."
Dresner, who has served as interim police chief since July, has had mixed feelings about the experience. Although he has enjoyed working as chief, he said, he has sometimes been frustrated by the criticism the department has received from people who don't fully understand police work. Part of the problem is that the police haven't always done a good job explaining to the community what the department does, Dresner said.
"There have been rewarding moments; on the other hand, there have been moments like, 'What could I possibly be thinking?'" Dresner said.
Burton has a difficult job ahead, Dresner said. He will need to improve the crime situation on a tight budget, and it will also be important for him to remain as transparent as possible when dealing with the public.
"Any police chief worth his salt is going to be open to the public, and I think that he will be," Dresner said.
The final four candidates for the position all came from outside of the Police Department. Bringing new blood into the police force offers the chance for fresh ideas, Watkins said.
"He (Burton) brings an important perspective with a renewed emphasis on community policing and working with citizens and other community groups," Watkins said.
Burton says his 28 years of experience in law enforcement have prepared him for the head job in Columbia. He has worked for several other police departments in Texas since entering the force as an officer in Dallas in 1977, and he worked in private sector security for four years in the 1980s.
"I know the importance of bringing stakeholders into the fray," Burton said. "When you talk about policing a community, there are many thing that need to be considered. I bring a lot of experience to the Columbia Police Department."
After naming Burton and Laughlin as finalists for the position on Jan. 30, Watkins flew to Haltom City to interview Burton, as well as the city manager, regional police officers and community leaders.
Over the entire interview process, Burton met with Columbia residents, Dresner and between 30 to 40 Columbia police officers, Burton said. He and his wife, Linda, will be in Columbia this weekend to look for housing, he said.
But it hasn't all been smooth sailing for Burton. In 2004, he was investigated by a grand jury to determine whether he used his influence as police chief to help a fellow officer purchase a motorcycle for personal use. Burton was never indicted.
“It was blown way out of proportion," Burton said. "The situation happened a couple of years ago. I've put it behind me, and it's not relevant to my work in Columbia.”
Burton was offered the job on Tuesday over the phone and accepted the position formally Thursday morning, Watkins said.
"I’m very pleased with the process and all of the citizen and community input we have received," Watkins said. "This has been as inclusive a process as possible, with a number of leaders and members from the community helping in the selection process."