The Death of a Good Cop


Last week a Cambridge policeman died. His death made no headlines, though he was a hero whose heroism almost certainly shortened his life. His name was Francis “Frank” Burns, and he has been my friend for thirty-five years. Many Harvard Law students and alumni of my classes will remember Frank from his appearances in Criminal Law to demonstrate stop and frisk and to show the students the cache of weapons he had collected from criminals in Harvard Square.

We met when he arrested two punks from Sommerville who had mugged and robbed my twelve year old son who was selling newspapers in the subway beneath the kiosk in Harvard Square. He then arrested them again when they threatened my son.

Several years later, he was called to a domestic violence crime scene where the perpetrator was armed and threatening to kill. Because there were bystanders, Frank held his fire until the perp started shooting. By the time Frank was able to get off any shots, he was hit five times. He then shot the perp. When I went to visit him at Mt. Auburn hospital, Frank was smiling and complaining: “Because of you liberals, they treated the perp before they treated the cop.” Fortunately, Frank was hurt less seriously than the perp, though Frank’s wounds were disabling. He was never quite the same, after the surgeries, though he continued on the force with a partial disability. He walked with a limp when he testified against the shooter. The Cambridge police department didn’t treat Frank all that fairly in my view, and I tried to help him.

I also recruited him to come to my criminal law class to give the students a different perspective on the abstract issues of search, seizure, deadly force and other controversial subjects we try to teach in our ivory tower. He was a phenomenal teacher. He would bring to class a sack filed with an assortment of weapons he and his fellow officers had confiscated in Harvard Square. The students were amazed to see what he had taken off the streets around Harvard Square. He would search me for hidden “weapons”-my kid’s toy guns-that I had secreted on my body. He talked openly and candidly about racial issues, often provoking emotional responses. He always deflected student anger with his sense of humor. The students loved him.

Several times he woke me up in the middle of the night when a student was arrested to ask me to “come down” and “work something out.” He didn’t resent the students, as some officers did. He was always trying to help them, to give them a second chance.

In many ways, however, Frank Burns was “old school.” He was a no-nonsense cop when it came to violent crime. He knew the difference between a kid with a joint and a punk with a gun. He had little patience for legal technicalities. Lawyers were not his favorite people. Sarcasm dripped from his voice when he called me “counselor.” He was a good man, a great cop and a loyal friend.

When I sat in Saint Peter’s church at his funeral mass last Saturday, and looked around at the hundreds of mourners-many of the police officers, nearly all of them Catholic-I reflected on how different we were. And then I realized how similar we were in the really important ways. I will miss Frank Burns. Cambridge will miss Frank Burns. Harvard will miss Frank Burns.

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