Details Emerging On Issues That Prompted Barstow Police Chief’s Exodus

(October 5)  BARSTOW—Considerable detail emerged late last week with regard to the events that led up to the June resignation of former Barstow police chief Dianne Burns, the first woman in San Bernardino County history to serve as the chief of a municipal police department.
Burns voluntarily retired on June 29, three days before her five-year contract with the city was set to expire, just about a year after the first public indications of dissension and difficulty attending her trailblazing tenure on behalf of her gender within the ranks of southern California law enforcement.
The actual nature of the contretemps involving Burns and certain elements of the Barstow community was heretofore only partially publicly known. It was revealed early this year, just as Burns was returning from a nearly seven-month extended paid hiatus that a majority of the police department’s members were chaffing under her leadership and were opposed to her coming back. It is now known that Burns was also out of favor with at least one member of the city council, Tim Saenz, who accused her of having wrongfully used her authority as police chief to threaten him personally and politically.
After a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department during which she served in the capacities of a patrol officer, homicide detective, sergeant and lieutenant of a gang suppression unit,  Burns in 2007 was the choice of then-Barstow city  manager Hector Rodriguez to replace former police chief Lee Gibson. Rodriguez selected Burns, who also possessed a law degree, within four weeks of Gibson’s May 1, 2007 departure. It took a majority of the city council another month to set aside some of its members’ concerns about having a woman take on a leadership role within the oftentimes machismo-driven ethos of a law enforcement agency, and  achieve a consensus about Burns’ suitability to serve as the commander of the department’s officers.
The department was 11 short of its authorized strength of 38 officers when Burns arrived. It gained five officers over the next 21 months and then went to full staffing in May 2009 when six officers were sworn in. Burns’ tenure as chief suffered a first noticeable blow in November 2007 when Rodriguez, her primary supporter at City Hall, departed Barstow.
Burns worked  through a number of challenges besetting the department, instituting  several of what were hailed as positive changes by the community, including establishing a shooting and tactical training school just outside of Hinkley and mandating that officers take target practice at least once every two months; her rewriting of the department’s policies and procedures manual, which had not been updated since 1983; and her authorship of an until-then non-existent internal affairs manual for the department. 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 further sought and obtained $100,000 per year in “Cops’ 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.”
Despite those external accolades, internally there were problems brewing as her command of the department was tested by some officers resentful of her leadership who perceived her as an outsider who had vaulted into the top position in the department without working up through the ranks in Barstow. This was exacerbated by what some officers saw as her formalized big city approach, deemed in some quarters as inappropriate for a desert city with a population of less than 23,000. 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 holiday, which was not anticipated to last for more than two weeks. Shortly after that it was acknowledged that city manager Curt Mitchell had 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.
Throughout the ordeal, city officials steadfastly refused to say what was at the basis of Burns’ suspension. Last week, light was shed on what had occurred when word reached the public that the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing responded to a complaint and a request for leave to sue the city filed  on April 25 by councilman Tim Saenz. In that filing, Saenz related that Burns began evincing hostility toward him in June 2011, specifically engaging in “threatening, harassing and discriminating” behavior, which Saenz informed city manager Curt Mitchell about in an email on June 12, 2011. The strained relationship between Saenz and Burns did not subside. During a community event held at Quigley’s Restaurant on June 30, 2011, according to Saenz, Burns made a series of deprecating statements about the councilman to assistant city manager Oliver Chi, using profanity when she referred to Saenz and speaking in a tone and volume that was audible to others.  She said she wanted to initiate an investigation into Saenz related to his “sleeping with every woman in Barstow.”
Saenz sent further emails to Mitchell about Burns that day and again on July 1 and July 2, 2011, the following two days. During a conference with Mitchell and Chi over the matter, Saenz said Chi advised him to avoid Burns because she was out to get him.
Saenz alleged in his filing that Burns’ action had resulted in “anxiety, stress, family issues, professional issues, work related issues, sleepless nights [and] a total change of my and my family’s lives.”
The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing provided Saenz with a right-to-sue notice, stating that Saenz had met the minimum evidentiary threshold of showing that discrimination might have occurred. He had sought the right to sue under the assertion that as a councilmember, he is technically an employee of the city. The Barstow Desert Dispatch reported on the existence of the right to sue letter last week.
The state agency provided the right to sue notice despite an eventual finding by Mitchell that Burns had not violated the city’s policy on harassment. That determination was made just before Burns returned to work on February 27. Mitchell, to whom the police chief is answerable within the city’s chain of command, did determine after an unprecedented six month suspension of the police chief that Burns had made negative remarks about Saenz in public, though Mitchell turned up no evidence to show she had actually initiated the investigation of  Saenz as she had threatened in her June 30, 2011 remarks to Chi.  Saenz told the Desert Dispatch he does not intend to sue the city but felt he had to obtain the  right-to-sue notice to protect himself from retaliation by Burns after she was reinstated as police chief.
Just prior to Burns’ return from her extended leave, after Mitchell had signaled that she was about to resume command of the department, the Barstow Police Officers Association, representing 30 officers, corporals and detectives, and the Barstow Police Management Association, representing six sergeants and lieutenants, provided on February 24 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 were 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, 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.

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