Police chief marks 50th year serving, protecting Penn Hills
Nearly 50 years after starting a job he never expected to have, Penn Hills police Chief Howard Burton is still at it.
March 17 will mark a half-century of service at the department for Burton. The chief, who is 71, has served in law enforcement for more than two-thirds of his life and for three years longer than his enduring 47-year marriage to wife Lin.
Not bad for a man who didn’t even plan on a career in law enforcement.
When Burton graduated from Penn Hills High School, he worked in a paper mill, then joined the Navy and served in active duty for two years.
“When I came back, I went back to the paper mill. One day, I saw they were advertising for police officers. So, I finished the midnight shift at the mill and took the test,” Burton said. “And that was that. I finished in the top three in the results, and I got hired.”
His first year as a patrolman, Burton said his salary was around $6,500. He worked other jobs as a “lot cop” at spots including Eat ‘N Park and McDonald’s. He also worked as a laborer for a brick-laying company.
In those days, he never saw a leadership role in his future.
“As a young patrolman, after one or two years, people told me, ‘Maybe someday you’ll be chief.’ I never thought it would happen though,” he said.
Burton steadily climbed the rankings while simultaneously advancing his education. By May 1979, he had earned a master’s degree in administration of justice from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1994, he underwent advanced training offered at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va.
From 1969 to 1999, he served as patrolman, detective, sergeant, lieutenant and acting police chief.
Then, he retired — for a day or so.
“I was part of the union. So I was here 30 years, and I retired,” Burton said.
But he couldn’t stay away. Back in the 1970s, the municipality had eliminated the chief role, keeping a captain and having lieutenants run each division. Burton spoke with Penn Hills administration about the importance of having a department leader.
He was named chief in May 1999 by former mayor Bill DeSantis, two months after his 30-year anniversary.
“He had the resume, courses and training. He was the guy for the job,” DeSantis said.
A lasting legacy
DeSantis, 79, of Penn Hills said Burton’s successor will have big shoes to fill.
“Having any job for 50 years is amazing, let alone that job,” DeSantis said. “He’s seen a lot of changes in the community and the police force. And he’s handled and adapted and moved on with new technology, new procedures.”
Burton has watched the field of policing go from handwritten reports to smartphone apps.
When he started as a patrolman in 1969, he used a non-portable radio with two frequencies.
“Once I stepped out of my car, I was out of communication,” he said.
Today, all patrolman have laptops in their vehicles and cell phones with various apps used to gather critical information on suspects. And of course, everyone has a camera.
“They can take photos at crime scenes. And there’s no film to develop,” Burton said.
Even the Google maps app allows officers to take aerial views of the area before heading into a possible crime scene.
Throughout his long career, Burton also won numerous awards and served several prestigious organizations, including as chairman of the Administrative Committee of the Pennsylvania Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission for 10 years. He also was treasurer of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association for four years and president of the Western Pennsylvania Chapter of the FBI National Academy Associates for a year.
While serving with the Chiefs of Police Association, Burton was part of the team responsible for establishing the state-wide police department accreditation program, which seeks to provide a framework for evaluating agency practices and procedures, reduce agency risk and exposure to lawsuits and enhance accountability, among other goals.
Approximately 120 agencies around the state have become accredited, including eight agencies in Allegheny County. Another 34 agencies, including Penn Hills Police Department, have enrolled in the program but have not yet been accredited.
Burton also was instrumental in implementing the “We Tip” national anonymous tip line in the early 2000s. The program offered $1,000 to tipsters if their information led to arrests and convictions of wanted individuals.
His impact has not gone unnoticed by fellow municipal employees.
“Fifty years in the same department — that’s pretty unheard of,” said Diane Fitzhenry, EMS supervisor in Penn Hills who has served the municipality in a number of roles since the 1970s. “He has a great deal of perseverance. To serve anywhere for that length of time speaks to him as an individual.”
For Burton — who has grown up in Penn Hills — the accolades are secondary.
His main concern has always been keeping his hometown safe.
“(Crime) has gotten better over the years. There are peaks and valleys, but crime has gone down. And that’s a combination of officers and the community being involved. You give credit to the citizens coming forward — to not being afraid to report crime happening,” he said.
That connection — what he calls “being reachable” with the public — is something in which Burton takes great pride. He said he frequently speaks at events for religious groups, Kiwanis and Rotary clubs and others to remain visible and approachable in the community.
“I believe in being transparent. We have nothing to hide,” he said. “It’s just part of the job. I’m not anyone special, I just have a job to do to serve the public. And I do that.”
Passing the torch
Burton said he still has a couple years left in him, but when the time comes to officially retire, he’ll be ready.
“You reach a time where it’s time to quit. You realize you’ve done what you can do. But I’ll be ready. (When) it’s time to pass it on, (I’ll) let the new blood take over and move on from there and just hope I left enough of a legacy behind that they can do the job — which I’m sure they can,” he said.
Burton said his next retirement will stick.
“That’s it,” he said, chuckling. He plans to spend his newfound downtime getting better at golf, a sport he “attempted” to play around eight years ago. His go-to green is 3 Lakes Golf Course in Penn Hills.
And after years of missing holidays, birthdays and his kids’ sporting events, he looks forward to time spent with family. Burton has two children. His daughter, Dawn Grainer — married to Chris Grainer, a Gateway School District teacher — teaches at South Park School District. His son, Ross Burton — married to Kristen — works for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. He has one grandchild, Evan, 3.
But retirement won’t be all relaxation and perfecting his golf swing. Burton plans to continue to teach online law enforcement courses for Point Park University.
Some things really do die hard — or maybe never at all.
“I’ll probably still wear a gun,” he said with a smile.
Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter .