BARSTOW—Barstow Police Chief Dianne Burns, the first woman to head a police department in San Bernardino County history, voluntarily retired on June 29, three days before her five-year contract was set to expire.
Burns’ trailblazing on behalf of her gender within the ranks of southern California law enforcement featured stints as a patrol officer, homicide detective, sergeant and lieutenant of a gang suppression unit during the 20 years she was with the Los Angeles Police Department. In 2007, she was the choice of then-Barstow city manager Hector Rodriguez to replace former police chief Lee Gibson. Rodriguez selected Burns within four weeks of Gibson’s May 1, 2007 departure, but it took a majority of the city council another month to achieve a consensus about Burns’ suitability for the position. Her credentials as a gang task force leader on the mean streets of Los Angeles and her possession of a law degree were among the items on her résumé that led to her being given a contract effective July 2 of that year.
The department was 11 short of its authorized strength of 38 officers when she took command. The department gained five officers over the next 21 months and then went to full staffing in May 2009 when six officers were sworn in.
Before that, however, Burns’ tenure as chief suffered a blow when in November 2007, Rodriguez, her primary supporter at City Hall, departed Barstow. From the outset there were problems related to at least some of the department’s officers accepting a woman as their commander in the oftentimes machismo-driven atmosphere of a law enforcement agency.
Burns attempted to work through that challenge and instituted several positive changes that were hailed by the community. The first of those was to institute a shooting and tactical training school just outside of Hinkley and mandate that officers take target practice at least once every two months. She then rewrote the department’s policies and procedures manual, which had not been updated since 1983, and she co-authored an internal affairs manual for the department, which until that time was non-existent. She simultaneously sought to improve the interdepartmental relationship with the sheriff’s station in Barstow and encouraged officers in the department to become actively involved in community programs such as Cops for Kids, Neighborhood Watch, Cook and Serve for the Homeless, and local neighborhood street fairs. She also sought and obtained $100,000 per year in “Cop’s Grant” money to update equipment, buy new computers, and provide officers with protective vests.
Outside the department, Burns’ efforts did not go unnoticed and the 2009-2010 grand jury in its yearly report took the uncommon step of commending her “for the changes, improvements, and upgrades she has made since becoming chief of police.” The grand jury waxed praiseful in the commendation, stating “It is hoped that the citizens of Barstow and the surrounding area appreciate her fine work.”
Though she received external accolades, internally there were problems brewing. Her command of the department was tested by some officers resentful of her leadership, her initial status as an outsider who had vaulted into the top position in the department without working up through the ranks in Barstow, her formalized big city approach and her gender. In response, Burns on occasion lashed out at officers in ways some caricatured as hysterical.
In July 2011, Burns went on vacation and did not return at the end of her hiatus, which was not anticipated to last for more than two weeks. When she did not return, city manager Curt Mitchell placed her on administrative leave. She remained absent from the department for more than six months while Mitchell and the council conducted a review of an unspecified issue relating to her job performance.
On February 24, as Mitchell’s assessment of Burns was drawing to a close, the Barstow Police Officers Association, representing 30 officers, corporals and detectives, and the Barstow Police Management Association, representing six sergeants and lieutenants, provided a vote of “no confidence” in Burns’ ability to continue to lead the department. The groups then sent a letter to Mitchell referencing the votes and excoriating Burns for “poor performance” and “extreme favoritism,” as well as a “hostile work environment” that the unions said was the product of her oversight of the department. The letter upbraided Mitchell for “failing to adequately address all concerns” the department’s officers had expressed about Burns. “She has demonstrated a lack of leadership and she has displayed severe instability in her emotions while in an official capacity,” the letter stated.
Despite the insurrection, Mitchell restored Burns to her position on February 27, mindful that her contract was up on July 2 and that she would be due for another review before it would be renewed on July 2, if indeed it was to be renewed.
Mitchell had not yet completed his review nor arrived at a decision about whether he would recommend to the city council that Burns be retained when she tendered her resignation. The prepared statement Burns provided after she filed her resignation did not hint at the difficulties she had experienced with her subordinates during her tenure.
“There is never a good time to leave a job and a police department that you love and enjoy, but there is always a right time,” Burns said. “That time has now come for me professionally and personally to retire and spend time with my husband who retired five years ago.”
Mitchell has designated lieutenant Albert Ramirez to serve as interim chief of police.