Boston Police Capt. Shawn Burns, the newly installed commander of the Area C-11 police district, makes it a point to get out of his Gibson Street office every day for a walk that lets him see what’s going on with his own two eyes. It’s a habit he wants the officers under his command in Dorchester’s easternmost precinct to adopt as well.
Sometimes, he said in an interview with the Reporter, he’s prompted to walk around a specific block due to an incident report or quality of life complaint. Other days, he said, “I just pick a spot on the map and go out and walk it,” which he has been doing that since late May when he took charge.
“The other day I went out and walked an area of Bowdoin-Geneva because a community member had an incident and so I went to see how they have been. “I try to do a different street and different school or a park every day…It’s not a radical idea but old-fashioned walking the beat. If I’m out there walking, the officers will want to be out there, too.”
Burns’s goal of getting officers closer to the public seems to align well with the thinking of incoming Commissioner Michael Cox, who has stressed that getting officers out of their cruisers to engage with people in the community will be a priority for his command staff.
“I want to get out in the community, and I want our officers out there,” Burns said. “I don’t have the staffing now, but I would like to get officers back out on bikes if I can. It’s really going to be a grass-roots effort on our part getting out there and building rapport. I would love for the community to be able to identify our officers by name – to know them that well.”
Burns is a 21-year veteran of the BPD who recently completed a one-year stint leading the East Boston police district. A South Boston native, he left the area to serve in the US Navy for four years. Upon his return, he felt the pull to be a schoolteacher, and was in a training program at UMass Boston before policing won him over. His first assignment was at the E-13 District in Jamaica Plain, and at the time he and his family made their home in the C-11 area of Dorchester.
When the job opened at C-11 this year, he said he felt the tug. “We were totally ingrained in Dorchester with St. Ann’s, ADSL, CYO, and the Murphy School,” he said. “So, there was a pull because I guess I have some roots even though I’m not originally from Dorchester. I felt a connection to Dorchester, and C-11 is a big and diverse district with a lot going on. I want to be challenged and do my best to make this an even better community.”
Burns is well traveled, having served exclusively at the district level in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Mattapan, Allston-Brighton, the South End, East Boston, and now the C-11 side of Dorchester. Of those experiences, the one that shaped him as a district leader was a four-year stint as the Community Service Officer (CSO) in Brighton. He said his experience working closely with the community on policing matters changed his view of the job.
“It just opened up a whole new world of what the job is all about,” he said. “No longer am I responding to 9-1-1 calls. You are closely dealing with the community and it’s a post that still helps me do my job today.”
In running the C-11 district, Burns said, he wants many of his patrol officers to have a little bit of CSO side to them. That’s why he often pulls officers off the beat and into community events along with the CSOs. He said having regular officers at positive community events is something that will help later.
“When it’s 2 a.m. and someone needs help, it’s those officers that will step up.”
A particular challenge in the district is quality of life issues, which he said are involved with the bulk of police responses. He said he is optimistic they can work with other city departments to resolve many of those matters. However, nothing challenges the police more than the growing mental health crisis.
At the beginning of his career, Burns said, mental health issues were nowhere near as prominent, but now they are a major part of police responses. He said officers have risen to the occasion, and so have the mental health clinicians working with the police – known as the BEST Team.
“In today’s world, these officers are basically experts in it,” he said. “Many of them do Section 12s (psychiatrist evaluation orders) on scene. You have the BEST Team here…I don’t know where we’d be without them.”
In summary, Burns said, his leadership will be about bringing the police closer to the public and building new relationships while repairing others.
“We’re just like everyone else,” he said. “Just because we put on this uniform doesn’t make us different.”