New police chief strives to get to know Lake Oswego
When George Burke grew tired of sitting in his office during his first first few days on the job, he strolled through downtown Lake Oswego in his uniform to pop his head into a local business and say hi.
The new Lake Oswego police chief has made it a priority to get to know the community he now serves, and impromptu visits like this are a small step toward that goal.
"I want people to recognize the name, the face and the position, and recognize, 'Oh, this is our new chief,'" he said. "That way I get to engage and talk and people get to know me and I get to know them."
Burke started his new gig as the police chief in early September after recently serving as the deputy police chief in Salem and in various leadership roles for the Portland Police Bureau before that. He replaced Dale Jorgensen, who announced his retirement earlier this year.
Growing up in Gresham, Burke considered becoming a teacher before going on a ride along and changing his career path to police work. He joined the Forest Grove police force three days after graduating from Western Oregon University in 1989.
"I did some student teaching and really quickly I realized I didn't want to live by a lesson plan, but I still wanted to be in a profession where I could work to educate people," he said.
As he gets started in his new role as Lake Oswego chief, Burke can hearken back to the experience he had at the beginning of his career serving a small community.
"Working in a small community, you really get to learn all aspects of policing in a way you don't get to in a lot of bigger agencies, because you have to learn to do everything yourself," he said.
Burke spent three years at Forest Grove before beginning a 25-year stint with the Portland Police Bureau, where he worked in patrol, operations, fraud, drug and homicide units — including serving as sergeant of the homicide unit. He also was the commander of detectives before holding the title of commander of the city's North Precinct.
In homicide, he said he enjoyed working on behalf of victims who could not speak for themselves, and that made it easier for him to continue despite dealing with some horrific cases.
"To me you're working for the survivors of those who have passed. There's a lot of gratification in doing that," Burke said.
He also said he advocated for the implementation of what is known as Melissa's Law, which ensured that forensic evidence in sexual assault cases be submitted to a lab for testing.
"That was a big move for the state of Oregon. It was a great partnership with the Portland Police Bureau as well as Oregon State Police to make that happen," he said.
In Salem, he was the deputy chief overseeing investigations and led the strategic investigations unit that took a proactive approach to address violent crime, firearms and drugs. He also helped form a multidisciplinary team that focused on child abuse and playing a role in bringing the domestic violence team under the investigations division. For most of this year, he led the patrol division.
"From that point you're really just trying to manage the day-to-day: 'How are we responding to calls for service?' And the biggest struggle for law enforcement right now is finding people who want to do the job," Burke said.
Since the 2020 protests in Lake Oswego and across the country, there's been an increased push to hold police accountable. Burke said he's all for accountability, but that the related push to defund police has proven detrimental in cities like Portland and elsewhere while also leading to a dearth of prospective officers.
"I think there's been a lot of good, positive responses from the community about what they expect from law enforcement … The narrative across the country and all the things that have happened over the last couple years have really hurt us in our recruiting effort," he said.
Burke planned to retire in Salem after joining that force in 2017, and was OK with never having become police chief (he could never be the chief at that department because his son works there). But he said a friend told him to consider the Lake Oswego job.
"After talking with Chief Jorgensen and meeting people in the organization, I was 100% sold," he said.
Why? Burke said he got the sense that, while community members have pushed for more accountability and reform, they also appreciate local police and are not pushing to decrease funding.
"That public outcry of defunding hasn't happened here. As a matter of fact, this community absolutely supports their officers and the law enforcement community, which is great," Burke said. "It's been so refreshing how (well) I've been received."
Last year the city held a series of conversations on community policing, and some outcomes of that process included pushing to increase diversity within the force, implementing body camera technology and providing more publicly-accessible data. Burke said many of the recommendations approved by the City Council have already been implemented.
"Now it's a matter of getting those last couple things done, which to me really focuses on communication and transparency. Those are the final steps. We need to make police business public business, and we need to be more transparent about it. People need to have access to see what it is we do as an organization," Burke said, adding that more information on the city's website and social media could help with this effort.
Community engagement is another priority for the new chief.
As the leader of the detectives division in Portland, he said he mandated that detectives in his unit visit community meetings and develop connections with people in the community. He also served as the representative for police on the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Salem.
He said community policing has changed over time. In the past, it was about making yourself available; now the goal of law enforcement is to engage with people and develop relationships and partnerships.
"It's not just the police telling the community how we're going to police their community. It's become much more interactive over the years," he said.
In Lake Oswego, Burke said he's working to foster those relationships. He's already met with the Respond to Racism group to hear its concerns and is also planning to meet with the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce.
Burke added that one thing he's looking forward to doing is establishing a succession plan for the next police chief and giving an internal candidate the best chance of obtaining his job once he retires.
"I see that as an opportunity that not a lot of chiefs get to have," he said, adding that he doesn't know the timeframe for when he may retire but that his current job will be his last.
Despite moving from two of the biggest law enforcement agencies in the state to a mid-sized city, he felt that his job will be just as busy as ever and is committed to working long hours. He hopes that the community will help inform where the Lake Oswego force should focus its efforts.
"This job will be as consuming as any job I've ever had, because my job now is to truly engage our community and get to know people," he said, adding that developing relationships within the department will be equally important.
Mayor Joe Buck said via text he appreciated the community involvement that went into the hiring process of Burke and that the new police chief will work to earn the trust of the community.
"The City Council is now enjoying getting to know Chief Burke as we continue toward making LO a community with a top tier public safety personnel representative of and responsive to the needs of every resident," he wrote.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.