Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker asked for and received Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank’s resignation over his handling of a sexual harassment case involving three women. Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans* community feels they have lost an ally.
Burbank was known for his calm demeanor in the face of turbulence. While police chiefs in other jurisdictions would send officers in riot gear to keep the public peace, Burbank showed up personally and spoke one-on-one with those involved. Across the nation, cities are dealing with police departments with which their citizens feel at odds, but in Salt Lake there has been mutual praise between police and protesters.
Salt Lake Tribune declared Burbank “Utahn of the Year” in 2011 in part for his handling of the Occupy Salt Lake and Tim DeChristopher protests.
“He was friendly. He was chatty,” Deb Henry, a civil engineer and activist who lives in Sugar House and was involved in both the DeChristopher protest and Occupy SLC, told the Tribune. “He helped us to play it out in the way we wanted to happen.”
Henry posted on Facebook today that she felt Burbank was a “sacrificial lamb and this is a political move by Mayor Becker in an election year.”
Burbank was hired in 2006 by then-Mayor Rocky Anderson to replace six-year police chief Rick Dinse.
Since then, he has been a regular at Utah Pride Parades and Festivals, personally showed up at Club Sound to talk to potential witnesses and press after a reported hate crime had happened nearby, and put officer Eric Moutsos on paid administrative leave after he refused an assignment in the police brigade at the beginning of the Utah Pride Parade. Moutsos, who also happened to be the officer who arrested two men for kissing in the public right-of-way on Temple Square, later resigned. He is now with the ultra-conservative Sutherland Institute and spoke against the compromise that allowed for the Utah nondiscrimination law to be passed.
Burbank also spoke, at times with his voice breaking, at a candlelight vigil in Liberty Park in response to reports of three anti-gay assaults in the city.
“Chief Burbank spoke about his best friend who had died. It was really moving for everyone,” said vigil organizer Marian Edmund Allen, “He worked hard to keep the lines of communication open with everyone. I was impressed then, and since then with my interactions with him about LGBT homeless youth. He is a good man.”
Activist Eric Ethington, who held several rallies after Proposition 8, called Burbank respectful.
“I was always impressed with Mr. Burbank’s commitment to the LGBTQ community’s rights, and more specifically our right to free speech,” Ethington said. “On principle, I never applied for a permit to hold a rally in Salt Lake City, but Chief Burbank and his officers always stepped up in a respectful manner to ensure the safety of participants and onlookers, and I never once heard a complaint of harassment or abuse towards ralliers.”
Connie Anast-Inman, executive director of Transgender Education Advocates of Utah, lauded Burbank for involvement in the Trans* community.
“I think he wanted to make Salt Lake safer for everyone,” she said. “He didn’t hesitate to join us for Transgender Day of Remembrance in 2013, when many in law enforcement leadership were absent.”
Facebook comments from the LGBT community were invariably in appreciation of Burbank.
“Our LGBTQ community loses a wonderful ally,” wrote Michael Sanders, organizer of blackBOOTS and former board member of Utah SAGE. “I hope the new chief understands and respects our community as well as Chris Burbank.”
“I am so sad about this,” wrote Erin Hamilton. “The best police chief ever!”
“This is tragic for our community,” wrote R. Victor Saldivar.
Those involved in women’s issues were not so glowing in their appraisal of the chief.
“I agree Chief Burbank stood tall on issues related to discrimination and violence against members of the LGBT community. But he has a dismal record on what still can be legitimately labeled as women’s issues,” wrote Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center. “I worked for nearly a year to help convince him — as did many advocates who deal with sexual assault survivors — that his department’s general treatment of rape victims is unacceptable. He had a huge blind spot in this regard, letting more than rape kits pile up in police evidence over the past decade. He dug in his heels throughout that time, refused to turn the kits over for testing and only relented when political pressure came to bear on him. He has cultivated a hostile environment against women in his police department, and it carried over (and remains) a problem in matters of investigating sexual assault cases. No police chief can last forever. They too often become ‘one of the boys in blue.’ My view is in spite of a long career of good works, in the past three years at least the chief has been going off the rails. He had to go.”
Openly lesbian mayoral candidate Jackie Biskupski released a statement calling Burbank’s departure “unfortunate but necessary.”
“In many ways [Burbank] has been a solid leader for the Salt Lake City Police Department,” Biskupski wrote. “However, it has become clear that there was a pattern of misconduct on the part of his immediate subordinates that was mismanaged by him and is absolutely unacceptable.”
She went on to scold the mayor for taking so long to address the issue.
“Salt Lake residents may find it significant that this mayor is acting only after the nature, severity, and disposition of the allegations of sexual harassment have become public in press reports,” Biskupski continued.
(photo – Alex Gallivan for the Utah Pride Center)