‘This profession is a calling’: A conversation with Lawrence’s new chief of police
Even Gregory Burns Jr. — a law enforcement officer since graduating high school and now Lawrence’s new chief of police — has been pulled over.
His own experiences being on the other side of law enforcement, some positive and some negative, have shaped how he approaches police work and what he expects from the officers working for him, he said.
Burns said the police should be professional, respectful and fair, and that will continue to be the case in this college town, which is home to a variety of residents and “influential people.”
“That doesn’t matter who you deal with. Follow those three things regardless of who it is — regular student, athlete or a citizen walking down the street,” Burns said. “It’s when we get outside of that that we have problems in what we do.”
Burns, 47, was sworn in as Lawrence’s chief of police on Oct. 2. In addition to being the first chief in at least 30 years to come in from an outside agency, he is also the city’s first African-American police chief since a black man held the position of “city marshal” for a number of months back in the 1890s.
About a month into the new job when interviewed recently by the Journal-World, Burns said he didn’t yet have major initiatives or changes to announce, but he spoke about his background and general principles of policing.
“I know it was a big adjustment for this police department not only to get a new chief, but to get somebody from the outside,” Burns said.
“My observation period is going to be very long. I’m not going to be in a rush to do anything. The easy way for me to do it would be to come in and carbon copy what I’m already used to … but that’s not the way that I believe a good leader looks at things.”
Burns most recently commanded the Louisville (Ky.) Metro Police Department’s Support Bureau, which includes four divisions: major crimes, narcotics, community services and special operations.
Louisville, a city of more than 600,000 people, is at the center of a metro area numbering more than 1 million people. The homicide rate in Louisville in recent years has been from roughly 50 to more than 100 killings a year.
It’s where Burns was born, lived his whole life except for four years in the Air Force, and where he had his first interactions with police officers — the ones that made him want to become one.
“This profession is a calling for me,” Burns said. “I always wanted to be a police officer since I was a young boy.”
Burns’ mother was the secretary for a district commander with Louisville police, he said.
Sometimes, as a treat, instead of Burns riding the bus all the way home after school, she let him get off the bus and visit her at work.
The major invited him into his office, and he got to talk and horse around with the other officers, Burns said.
“I got a lot of exposure at a young age,” he said. “That’s why I personally believe in police officers interacting with youth as early as they can.”
He remembers asking his mother to go out and buy newspapers in hopes of finding a photo of a police officer he could cut out and put on a poster for career day at school, and standing in front of the class and explaining, “I want to be a police officer. I want to help people.”
Burns was 17 when he graduated from high school.
In Kentucky, you had to be 21 to become a law enforcement officer.
“I had to do something constructive in that gap,” he said.
Although Burns had friends going off to college, he decided on a different route, one that would get him a law enforcement job and enable him to send a little money back home to his mother to help with his younger brother and sister.
Burns joined the U.S. Air Force, and spent 1989 to 1993 stationed in Honolulu working as a law enforcement officer with Air Force Security Forces. According to his city of Louisville biography, during his Air Force tenure, Burns served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, receiving commendations including the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Overseas Service Long Tour Ribbon.
When he was old enough to become a Louisville police officer, he went back home and did so.
With Louisville police, he held numerous supervising roles, including at one time commanding the Mounted Patrol, according to his bio. Burns received honors including multiple lifesaving and valor awards, and the department’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.
Burns also continued his education, earning an associate degree from Jefferson Community and Technical College and a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn.
There weren’t as many black police officers as now when Burns was a child in Louisville, he said.
He doesn’t recall thinking about that at the time.
“I just saw a badge and shiny shoes, and I just thought that was the greatest thing,” Burns said. “But obviously as you come up, it becomes more of an importance to you.”
As chief, diversity in the department is a priority, he said.
“Diversity on my former police department and on this police department are very important to me,” he said. “That means color, that means sex, that means age, that means years of experience, that means thought. Because everybody has had different life experiences and has seen things through different lenses.”
Burns’ life experiences include a few times being pulled over by police.
Burns was not far out of high school and living in Hawaii when he got one ticket.
“I know that I was speeding,” he said. “I had a brand new little Pontiac Fiero, and I was trying to show off for my friends.”
Another time before he became a police officer, Burns said he was back home in Louisville for a visit and had borrowed his uncle’s car. But his uncle, Burns realized after getting stopped, had forgotten to update the car’s registration.
“Those were both deserving, righteous pullovers,” Burns said.
Although the officer in Hawaii was “very professional,” the officer in the second stop — who happened to be African-American — was not “the nicest guy,” Burns said.
“His attitude was sort of bad,” Burns said. “But that experience was good for me, because I knew what I wanted to do was to be a police officer, and that experience told me that I did not want to be like that when I stopped people.”
Fast forward a few years, and Burns had become a police officer in Louisville.
On his way to meet a friend at a restaurant in another state, Burns drove through a yellow light and got pulled over.
It was not a good stop, he said. He believes it happened because he was African-American and driving a nice car, and the officer thought he was going to “have something more.”
“I thought he was awful intense for a traffic violation when he came up to the car,” Burns said. “I asked why I was being stopped, he said I ran a red light. I said, ‘I disagree, the light was yellow.'”
Burns left both hands on the steering wheel.
“I didn’t do anything until the officer told me to,” he said. “I didn’t want any misunderstandings … When he said I could get my license and registration, I did it. Until then I didn’t take my hands off the steering wheel.”
He also didn’t argue further.
“I do not believe that the street is the place to hold court, because it can only escalate a situation,” he said.
Ultimately, Burns said, that officer’s demeanor changed when he discovered Burns was a police officer in another jurisdiction. He did not get a ticket.
Burns recalled another time, off-duty and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he was trailed by a not-so-covert loss prevention officer while shopping for dress clothes at a department store.
“I don’t know if I was taking too long with the products?” Burns said. “Maybe I was carrying around too much stuff? I had no idea. It sort of irritated me that I was being followed around, that I was an assistant chief of police and that obviously I could pay for what I had.”
Burns said he went about his business. Although he was never stopped, he said, “I got followed, and I thought it was wrongfully so.”
When asked during the police chief interview process whether he thought there was such a thing as racial profiling, Burns said his answer was, “absolutely.”
“When people say they have had negative experiences, I can relate,” he said.
Issues like that need corrective action, he said.
“I am a firm believer in that you weed the bad apples out of everything, eventually,” Burns said. “Because if somebody is creating a problem, and they’re not out here doing the right thing day in and day out, that is going to rear its ugly head one way or the other.”
Burns, who moved to Lawrence with his wife, said he’s prioritizing getting to know the department and the community and figuring out what’s working and what’s not. Among his general priorities, he said, is recruiting to the police department, including diverse candidates.
Burns said he’s a big proponent of efforts like foot patrols and police tools that increase transparency and help solve crimes — such as body cameras and public cameras — though like any police initiatives, their deployment must be weighed against resources.
In Lawrence, Burns said he also looks forward to experiencing the crowd on Massachusetts Street if the University of Kansas basketball team goes to the Final Four.
“I don’t know if everybody does,” he said, laughing. That crowd can be a handful for police.
Though Louisville is a large city with a lot of violent crime, it’s also a college town with a high-profile basketball program like KU’s.
Burns said celebrity must not be a factor in policing.
“Unfortunately, athletes do cross with law enforcement at times, but you know, they get treated like any other citizen,” Burns said. “There is no, nor should there be, any special treatment.”
His advice to young people leaving the nest and making the jump from high school to college would apply to most everyone looking to avoid the bad kind of interactions with police.
“As I would in anything — whether it be celebrating, or whether it just be going out on a regular night — I would encourage our young people to use common sense, use good judgement,” Burns said. “And if it doesn’t seem right or feel right, then most of the time it’s not right.”