City News

Salem deputy chief George Burke hired as Lake Oswego chief

When George Burke first became a cop in 1989, the thought of becoming any city’s chief of police never crossed his mind.

He thought until recently his career would end after another ten years with the Salem Police Department, where he has served as a deputy chief for over five years.

Now, Burke, 56, is taking a new job as chief of the Lake Oswego Police Department starting Sept. 6. His last day with Salem police is Wednesday.

But he won’t be going anywhere. 

“I’m staying here in Salem,” he said. “My plan at this point is to continue to live in this community and continue the relationships that I have, and ultimately, I can continue to be an asset to Chief (Trevor) Womack and continue to help get him integrated into the community as well.”

When Burke learned of the opportunity in Lake Oswego, he made some phone calls. “Quite frankly, I had one of my best friends tell me if I didn’t apply to be a chief somewhere, he’d be disappointed,” he said. “He thought that that was the right path for me. And apparently, I must have agreed with him.”

Burke’s law enforcement career dates back to his college days.

Born in upstate New York, he moved to Oregon when he was 10 years old and grew up in Gresham. He attended Western Oregon State College — now Western Oregon University — while working as a reserve officer in Seaside in the summertime until he graduated and was hired by the Forest Grove Police Department in 1989.

He worked 24 years for the Portland Police Bureau, where he was promoted to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and eventually commander. 

When Burke was hired as deputy chief in Salem in January 2017, he knew just one person in the community.

His son, Sgt. AJ Burke, was working at the department as a police officer at the time and asked if he’d be willing to apply. Burke initially thought his son working there might bar him from the job, but because his son wouldn’t be working directly under him, the city’s policy allowed it.

“I think one of the things that is most important to me, or I guess I’m really pleased by, is the way that I was able to come into this community, get to know people within the community and developed some really deep roots,” he said.

Throughout his career, Burke said he has prioritized building trust both in his department and in the community by developing relationships over time.

“What I’ve found over the years is that if you wait until you’re in a crisis, that’s the worst time to try and build that relationship. So understanding that if you’re really going to be true to yourself, you’re gonna be true to your organization, it has to be genuine,” he said. “When people actually know you as a person, they tend to want to rely on the words that come out of your mouth and the actions that you perform, and they look at you as an individual rather than the blanket, you know, coverage of just law enforcement as a whole.”

Burke spent his first four and a half years in Salem overseeing the investigations division and took over the patrol division around eight months ago.

One of the things he’s most proud of is helping start a program with the Federal Bureau of Investigations and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that’s now called the Safe Streets Task Force, after Salem saw a significant increase in violent crime around 2016.

The task force has successfully investigated a major gun trafficking case, several overdose deaths from mixed drugs, and seized thousands of fentanyl pills and more than 100 firearms, and the investigations are brought to the U.S. Attorney General’s office for federal prosecution, according to a Salem City Council agenda item from June.

Buke said he spends a typical day talking with people, and relationships with the community are what allows the agency to get the resources it needs.

“I’ve seen a lot of people in their careers focus on either external relationships or internal relationships, and usually one comes at the cost of the other. For me, I think it’s the ability to manage both,” he said. “The biggest resource that you could gain comes from the community asking for it, not from us asking for it.”

Burke said he and Womack have lived through different generations of law enforcement, and he believes they are on the cusp of a new era of policing more focused on community relations. He has seen many other members of law enforcement want nothing to do with it.

“The whole concept of just being present and listening to your community has changed because that relationship is far more interactive. Now, it’s not just the police coming in to police the community the way that the community asked the police to do it. It’s actually done more cooperatively between community and law enforcement,” he said.

Womack said in a department Facebook post Monday announcing Burke’s departure, “I am very happy for both George and the Lake Oswego community, as he will be an outstanding leader. His achievement also makes us proud. It reflects well upon our agency when one of our own attains such a high mark of success. Finally, I want to thank Deputy Chief Burke for his contributions to our department and this community in his nearly six years of service to Salem.”

Burke said his love for his family has kept him from ever seeking a job outside the state. “My roots, everything I have that matters really, is here,” he said.  “Obviously I have family across the country as well, but I’ve been here so long, I couldn’t imagine being in another part of the country.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.