New police chief already winning hearts, minds

Thursday, July 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton is off to a strong start.

Back in February, after City Manager Bill Watkins hired a burly, life-long Texan as our new police chief, I expressed some skepticism. The new chief, I suggested, faced a steep learning curve.

I wasn’t alone. City Councilwoman Barbara Hopperecalled that, on first meeting then-candidate Burton, she saw him as a “kinda tough, old-world kinda guy."

"I thought he might not have any good new ideas, and he might not be the right one,” Hoppe said.

Now, after his first few weeks on the job, she’s so inspired that she told him, “If I were younger, I’d join the police force.”

Both comments were reported in a Missourian article last month that began with this paragraph:

“When new Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton finished talking at City Council’s annual retreat last weekend about the future of the police department, council members and city staff applauded. His was the only presentation that drew such a response.”

It may have been the only presentation ever at a council retreat to draw, or deserve, applause. I suspect the clapping was for not only his prose but his performance so far. It seems to me, as it must seem to his City Hall colleagues, that the new guy hasn’t set a foot wrong. Let’s review the record.

Even before he got to town, he was on record as supporting the idea of a civilian review board. That’s an idea that has stirred opposition both inside and outside the police department, but one whose time has finally come.

Then, once he took office, two of his early actions were to name as deputy chief Tom Dresner, who had earned his own applause while serving as interim chief, and to announce that the department would adopt the national standards governing the use of Tasers. A deserving insider was rewarded, and a long-running controversy was defused.

Among his plans for the future, the council was especially impressed by his pledge to rearrange his front-line officers to put more cops into the neighborhoods with the most need for policing. (One of those areas, it turns out, is downtown. In fact, we’re not suffering a crime wave downtown, but there’s nothing like a few uniforms to make merchants and customers feel protected. Public relations is part of policing, too.)

Besides all that, Burton and his wife have set up housekeeping in a downtown apartment. He can walk to work.

I don’t want to get carried away. Applause is always more likely at the beginning of a police chief’s tenure than at the end. The concept of geographic policing isn’t all that new even in Columbia. As I recall, a long-ago chief named Norm Botsford instituted something similar. Then he left, quietly. The council’s— and the community’s —love affair with the new chief probably won’t last forever. (Do a Google search for Norm Botsford, and you’ll find an interesting illustration of that reality, as he leaves the job that lured him from Columbia.)

What policing and journalism have in common is that neither can be done very well for very long without making somebody important mad at you. So far, though, nobody important or otherwise appears to be mad at Chief Burton.

Happy Independence Day. To help you celebrate, I’m taking the rest of July off. With any luck, I’ll be back in August.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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