Mackenzie Burns started working with the NYPD at a time when COVID-19 has just begun spreading throughout the U.S.

Her Finest Hour: Mackenzie Burns Following Father's Footsteps with NYPD

At 11:07 a.m. on a Wednesday in late July, Mackenzie Burns walked in the door after an 18-hour double shift.

This wasn’t uncommon. Burns’ first day as an officer in the New York Police Department was March 20 — just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking shape in the United States. New York was one of the states hit hardest at the outset, and many officers and other first responders were tasked with working seven days a week with long hours.

A workday for Burns consisted of combatting the challenges of the novel coronavirus while also patrolling the streets of New York amid social justice protests that started after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis. 

Her voice groggy after an exhausting overnight shift, Burns recalled her tumultuous first few months on the force.

“We had to be sent out to our precincts two weeks early, so my academy class didn’t have our huge traditional graduation with our white gloves and uniforms,” said Burns, who attended the NYPD Police Academy in Flushing, Queens. “We went straight out to the streets. I didn’t even have a day to celebrate.”

Burns, the former Stony Brook women’s lacrosse defender and current U.S. team hopeful, experienced a baptism by fire in the NYPD. Officers in the academy are trained in countless disciplines, but preparation for a global pandemic isn’t typically part of the curriculum.

Despite efforts to remain safe, Burns was diagnosed with COVID-19 in the middle of April. The rest of her family also got the virus after she brought it home to them. They were asymptomatic and didn’t know they had it until test results came back.

“I got lucky,” Burns said. “I had mild symptoms. It was not too bad at all. I just felt very drained. It was a long couple of weeks. Then, I got right back to work.”

Debra Burns, Mackenzie’s mother, jokes with friends and family that she’s doing back-to-back tours. Her husband, Joe, retired in 2011 after 21 years in the NYPD, most recently as a captain in the Emergency Service Unit.

“I had to shut the news off … first with my husband, now with her,” Debra Burns said. “It’s harder because of social media. It’s 24/7. To deal with it, sometimes I have to shut social media off.”

“As a little girl, I always looked up to my dad. I was very proud of him. I knew I always wanted to do that. I followed in his footsteps and became a police officer.” - Mackenzie Burns

Ever since Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, protests against racial injustice and police brutality have swept the nation and some parts of the world. Burns said officers in the NYPD have been targeted by some demonstrators. She described seeing graffiti in front of New York City Hall that read, “The best cops are dead cops,” compared to the early days of the pandemic response when people dropped off food baskets and masks at her precinct.

“What happened in Minneapolis with George Floyd was tragic,” Burns said. “That shouldn’t have happened.” 

After widespread calls for police reform, Burns said her department has become more focused on community relations, adding that animosity toward police is only heightened when “no one actually knows what’s behind the uniform.”

What’s behind Burns’ uniform is someone who was inspired by her father to get into public service. Prior to joining the NYPD, Joe Burns served in the Coast Guard.

“As a little girl, I always looked up to my dad,” Mackenzie Burns said. “I was very proud of him. I knew I always wanted to do that. I followed in his footsteps and became a police officer.”

She wears badge No. 8132, the same one her father wore.

Joe Burns has been a bastion of knowledge and advice for his daughter, who had no choice but to learn on the job after leaving the academy early. He told her to always “be a good person and look out for your partners and the members of your precinct, and that follows with supporting your community that you work in.”

“She has a really big support group. Her friends, family and lax family,” Debra Burns said. “That’s indescribable to help you get through something like this.”

Still, Burns’  parents occasionally find themselves unable to sleep.

“My wife and I have spent many nights awake thinking, ‘Where is she? What is she doing? Is she OK?’ It definitely weighs on our minds,” Joe Burns said. “Just knowing what I went through and now what she’s going through, I think it makes it worse.”

Talk to anyone familiar with Mackenzie Burns, and one of the first traits they’ll describe is her toughness. “She’s one of the strongest women I know,” Debra Burns said.

“I would trust her with my life,” said Ally Kennedy, Burns’ college and U.S. teammate.

In middle school, Burns was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. At the time, she was one of just 50,000 children affected. Her joints ached constantly. She felt it most in her knees but was “in so much pain just doing everyday life.”

On her 13th birthday, doctors told Burns she’d never play sports again.

“I have it everywhere from my jaws to my toes,” she said. “Every joint imaginable, I have arthritis. Your joints get very stiff, and it hurts to move them morning and night. Most of my pain is in my knee. I’ve had multiple minor operations to get my knee drained and scoped out.”

To combat the pain, doctors prescribed Humera, a medicine that can reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis. It worked. Burns got back on the field and hardly skipped a beat.

“I guess it starts with when she was little,” Debra Burns said. “You could never tell her she couldn’t achieve anything. She still has that mentality. If she wants something, she’s going to go get it.”

Burns’ persistence led her to Stony Brook, where she started 67 games in four seasons for a team that climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings during the 2018 season. She was named the America East Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2019 and finished her Seawolves career ranked seventh in program history with 68 caused turnovers.

Burns’ success at Stony Brook led her to Team USA, for which her college coach, Joe Spallina, serves as an assistant. She will be among the 50 players competing in tryouts for the 2021 U.S. team Dec. 4-6 at US Lacrosse in Sparks, Md.

Burns first suited up for the U.S. team at the Spring Premiere in January 2019, featuring exhibitions at Stanford against England and the host Cardinal. Nine months later, she was in Sparks for the Fall Classic games against Canada and Maryland.

Unbeknownst to the Burns family, a photo of Mackenzie rising high for a draw when she was a member of the Long Island Yellow Jackets U15 team competing in the US Lacrosse Nationals hangs inside the building. It’s on the second floor, just past the precipice of the stairwell and in front of the elevator. You can’t miss it.

Burns’ lacrosse life came full circle when she was wearing red, white and blue and posing for pictures next to that throwback. Her maternal grandfather was Choctaw, and although Burns first discovered lacrosse without the influence of her Native American heritage, her cousins are proud that she embraces the sport of her ancestors.

Burns’ parents expressed similar pride in her ascent to the pinnacle of the sport. 

“When she got the phone call to be on Team USA, it was indescribable,” Joe Burns said. “Even depending on how far she goes, just a chance to get a picture of her with the USA jersey on far exceeds anything we could have imagined.”


Burns is a member of the U.S. Women's National Team player pool, trying out for a spot in the 2021 World Lacrosse Women's World Championship.

Burns thrives on competition. "She’s a warrior, very intense,” Yellow Jackets CEO Carol Rainson-Rose said. “I loved her work ethic. She was a gamer. Loved her speed. She was a pleasure to watch on the field. She just glides.”

Kennedy, a lightning-fast player in her own right, fawned over the way Burns takes the ball up the field in transition. But who’s faster? Kennedy laughed.

“This is a debate that will go on forever between me and her,” Kennedy said. “You always go with yourself. But she’s fast. She’s so competitive. Between going on the draw against each other in practice and then the 1-on-1s, they could get nasty. But off the field, we love each other and we’re the best of friends.”

Before Burns joined the NYPD, she served as a Yellow Jackets coach for players in the class of 2026. They were drawn not only to Burns’ lacrosse superstardom, but also the qualities that have allowed her to navigate life as a rookie cop. Even though she’s only been patrolling the streets since March 20, Burns is already blazing a trail. She’s one of the co-founders and co-captains of the first-ever NYPD women’s lacrosse team. It was a project she began working on while she was still in the academy.

“That was a big milestone in the NYPD,” she said.

The NYPD Finest women’s lacrosse team played its first game on Sunday, Aug. 2, later than anticipated because of the pandemic. “It’s sad that right now everything’s on hold because we were excited to get into the inner city and teach lacrosse,” she said.

That tough kid who fought through pain to play the sport she loves is now giving back to her community. 

“She’s an ambassador for the game,” Rainson-Rose said. “An ambassador for young girls as a role model to spread the game that she’s excelled in. She’s an inspiration to young girls.”