Departing Chief Recalls BPD’s Challenges, Reforms

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse will retire on Tuesday after decades in law enforcement. LaChasse came to the Police Department while it was facing allegations of discrimination and use of excessive force.

On Tuesday, Burbank Police Chief Scott LaChasse will trade in his badge and gun for a stack of travel brochures.

The Santa Clarita resident has spent several decades working in law enforcement, including more than 11 years leading the Burbank Police Department. Over time, LaChasse said, he’s collected plenty of Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines, filling his mind with images of travel destinations he’s wanted to visit but never had the time.

After his retirement next week, he will. His role will be filled by current Deputy Chief Michael Albanese until City Manager Justin Hess selects a long-term replacement.

LaChasse’s departure will cap a career in which he also spent 32 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, retiring as a deputy chief before working for some time as the vice president of studio protection for Paramount Pictures Corp.

LaChasse said a prior connection with attorneys working for Burbank led to his being asked to apply to succeed retiring Chief Tim Stehr. It would be a daunting role: When LaChasse become interim chief in 2010, the department was facing arguably some of its most serious tumult in recent memory.

“The reason I was brought here was because they needed someone that could deal in a crisis situation and help put the department back on its feet,” LaChasse said.

Many of the issues at the time related to allegations that officers were using excessive force against detainees suspected of robbing the local Porto’s Bakery and Cafe in 2007, according to the Los Angeles Times. 

Despite an initial internal investigation that found no substantiation for the excessive force complaints, the Times noted, an internal report later sparked an inferno of controversy for the BPD. The FBI launched an investigation against the department and the city faced multiple civil lawsuits. Some police officers accused their colleagues of discrimination.

Today, LaChasse speaks carefully about the period. He’s hesitant to get into the “gory details,” he explained, because he and the department have tried to put the whole matter behind them.

“There was a lot of dysfunction,” LaChasse said, “and that was readily apparent from the first day.”

After LaChasse joined the BPD, he and his staff introduced a number of reforms to the department. Under his leadership, the BPD saw changes to its use of force and pursuit policies, pursued external accreditation and an annual contract with an oversight group, and hired a psychologist to interview staff members to learn more about the sentiments they held toward the department and each other.

The department also fired several officers over allegations of excessive force or improper conduct, the Leader reported at the time.

Additionally, officers received training on recognizing and responding to mental health crises they might encounter in the field, and the BPD later launched the Mental Health Evaluation Team. The two-person team, which has received praise from local and state leaders, consists of a specially trained officer and a Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health clinician who respond to reports related to mental health issues.

“It’s the continuous improvement,” LaChasse said. “You’re constantly reevaluating where you’re been and where you’re going.”

CHIEFS PUSH BODY CAMERAS

Just months after he started his role as Burbank chief, LaChasse hired a number of new staff members — including Albanese, with whom he attended graduate school at USC.

Albanese, who joined the BPD as a patrol captain, said he spent 31 consecutive days going to work to immerse himself in the department and build relationships with other personnel, even choosing an office his coworkers would be forced to walk by so he could introduce himself to them.

Then, one day, Albanese overheard a worker say, “Does he ever go home?”

“That’s when I knew that I got a little bit of buy-in that I was committed to helping the organization get better,” he said.

Photo courtesy city of Burbank
Deputy Chief Michael Albanese will succeed Police Chief Scott LaChasse, serving as interim chief until the Burbank city manager appoints a long-term replacement.

LaChasse and Albanese, who became deputy chief in 2015, pushed the City Council to provide funding for body-worn cameras in the mid- and late 2010s, despite some council members’ apprehensiveness and pushback from a police union arguing that the money should instead be invested in hiring additional officers. Though the council initially declined to pursue the equipment, its members eventually approved the initiative, and all BPD officers started wearing the cameras last year.

Supporters of body-worn cameras have touted them as tools to keep officers accountable. LaChasse agreed the devices encouraged transparency, but also said he felt they could prove officers to be in the right.

“For instance, when you have someone that’s using a cellphone camera, they’re in a different position. You’re not seeing it from the officer’s [position], particularly in a ticklish situation,” LaChasse added. “We want to validate our good contact, and certainly taking advantage of the technology does that.”

Body-worn cameras are just one aspect relating to police accountability that has been the subject of renewed interest since the countrywide protests for racial justice and law enforcement reform last summer. Some of those protests were held in Burbank, attracting hundreds who demonstrated peacefully near City Hall and the police station.

LaChasse released an open letter in June 2020 amid what he often calls “the national narrative” regarding policing, saying the department shared “in the community’s devastation and anger over the events leading to the death of George Floyd” in Minneapolis in an encounter with officers.

Speaking roughly a year after the letter was published, LaChasse said he doesn’t believe the BPD is discriminatory, but acknowledged that some are convinced otherwise. The department, he insisted, investigates every complaint it receives.

“People really don’t distinguish one police department [from] another,” LaChasse said. “So we can’t dismiss what people are seeing out there and thinking, just because it doesn’t occur locally. … These topics are all worthy of discussion and we have been and will continue to be part of those processes.”

LOOKING AHEAD

After more than 11 years with the BPD, LaChasse is preparing for his retirement. He’s 73 and participates in a state pension system in which many workers aspire to retire at 50, he said. He’ll soon be able to thumb through the travel brochures he’s collected and plan some trips, though he added he also plans to participate in Burbank events and volunteer opportunities.

The chief said he feels it’s a good time to transition out of his role because of “the national narrative” and the City Council’s selection of five new Police Commission members later this month. LaChasse didn’t want to retire after working with them for only a few months, he explained.

The city manager hasn’t indicated who LaChasse’s successor will be, and until one is chosen Albanese will take over his colleague’s role — something the current deputy chief called an honor. LaChasse, Albanese added, has involved him in his decisions since the pair joined the department more than a decade ago.

Albanese said little regarding whether he would step into the role of chief on a long-term basis if the choice was offered.

“Let’s see if it’s a good fit for the city of Burbank and Mike Albanese,” he said. “Let me do my probationary time.”

As incoming interim chief, Albanese also said that officers need more training — not just a two-hour training module, he emphasized, but an immersive education. At the same time, he believes that the BPD is on the leading edge of transparency in the law enforcement field, particularly when compared to departments in other parts of the country.

“When you compare agencies in the Midwest and other parts of the country, they have been slow to achieve transparency,” Albanese said. “Southern California law enforcement, whether you agree or disagree with it, they’re pretty transparent.”

But Albanese acknowledged that the department could always improve, particularly when addressing homelessness and mental health. A former crisis negotiator with the LAPD’s SWAT team and the chair of local counseling nonprofit Family Service Agency’s Board of Directors, he said he knows the importance of having a mental health professional in the field, having spearheaded the creation of the Mental Health Evaluation Team years ago.

LaChasse said he has “the utmost confidence” in Albanese as his interim successor. He added that the person who succeeds him as long-term police chief, whoever that is, has to be constantly available to the local community.

“You need to be prepared 24/7, whether it’s a community problem [or] some type of a traumatic crime scene — you just don’t have the option of being able to pick and choose what you do,” LaChasse said.

“The ability to talk to anybody is really essential,” he added, “and building trust with the community. You just can’t say things; you have to mean what you say.”