Burrell is a careerist who believes in the BPD's chain of command and stores knowledge of corrupt activities of officers below him to maintain his authority. Burrell is a statistical bureaucrat who cares more about reducing crime on paper than building strong cases. He is conscious of the media coverage of the BPD and is very sensitive to the newspaper headlines concerning its progress. Throughout the series, he struggles to direct the BPD to make an adequate impact on crime reduction and is constantly engaged in conflict with the city's politicians, some of whom blame him for the department's problems.
Burrell attended Dunbar High School and was a member of the school's glee club. He was a year ahead of "Proposition Joe" Stewart, who described Burrell in high school as "stone stupid."
An ambitious Deputy Commissioner at the start of season 1, Burrell plans to ascend to Commissioner, a post held by Warren Frazier throughout the second season. Burrell's primary responsibility is to ensure that Frazier's directives are obeyed throughout the department. He consistently shows more interest in making good headlines rather than good cases.
When D'Angelo Barksdale beats a murder charge by buying off a witness, Burrell faces criticism from the presiding judge, Daniel Phelan, over the BPD's failure to investigate D'Angelo's uncle Avon. Burrell hastily assembles a task force to placate Phelan, under the command of Lieutenant Cedric Daniels. From the beginning, Burrell is unsupportive of the unit, giving Daniels the worst officers available. He orders premature seizure raids that tip the Barksdale organization off to the detail's efforts and prompts them to change their operating structure, hindering further investigation.
When the detail begins investigating donations from the Barksdale organization to local politicians, Burrell realizes the political implications. He is also upset to find that the case is becoming prolonged and that the detail has set up wiretaps. The detail seizes Barksdale money being carried by a driver for the corrupt state senator Clay Davis, but Burrell orders Daniels to return the money in order to avoid embarrassing the senator.
Burrell next orders the detail to perform an undercover operation, which ends in disaster and result in the shooting of Detective Kima Greggs. The high-profile shooting prompts more involvement from Frazier, who, along with Burrell, try to project the image of a strong department to the public by seizing a large amount of narcotics. In retaliation for the shooting, Burrell insists that Daniels' detail raid the Barksdales' main stash house, an act which causes them to stop using pay phones altogether — effectively nullifying the detail's wiretaps. Burrell bribes Detective Ellis Carver with a promotion to sergeant in exchange for information from inside the detail.
To force Daniels to meet his demands, Burrell threatens to revisit previous allegations towards Daniels which showed him in possession of an excessive income from his days in the Eastern District's Drug Enforcement Unit. Daniels turns the threat back on Burrell by telling him that he was ready to face the charges and cause bad press. When the Barksdale case ends, Burrell reassigns Daniels to evidence control as punishment for defying him. Burrell also learns about Jimmy McNulty's disclosure of information to Phelan; he approves McNulty's reassignment to the harbor patrol unit as punishment.
With Frazier's retirement, Burrell is named Acting Commissioner of the BPD. With the support of the mayor and many of the city's African American political figures, Burrell's appointment to Commissioner is made a certainty. The only dissenting voices come from first district council members. Major Stanislaus Valchek, the Southeastern District commander with political connections, offers Burrell support from the first district in exchange for assembling an investigative detail against Frank Sobotka. Valchek is convinced that Sobotka, the local head of a stevedore union, is smuggling through the docks; he also holds a petty grudge against Sobotka.
Burrell gives Valchek six detectives for the new detail, and gives them six weeks to find evidence against Sobotka and the union. However, as Burrell doesn't see any value in the Sobotka investigation, so he gives Valchek the worst officers available, just as he had with Daniels. Valchek is disappointed with the ineffective detail and furious when he hears through his son-in-law, Detective Roland Pryzbylewski, that Burrell interfered with the Barksdale case. Valchek demands better officers, threatening to derail Burrell's bid for Commissioner; he specifically demands that Daniels lead the detail.
When Burrell attempts to convince Daniels to stay with the department, Daniels realizes that Burrell is doing so at Valchek's request. Daniels demands a promotion, a specialized unit, and the selection of his own detectives to conduct the Sobotka case. Burrell agrees in order to appease Valchek. Daniels' detail proceeds to build a partially successful case against the union, leaving Valchek mollified.
Burrell faces problems with councilman Tommy Carcetti, the head of the public safety subcomittee, and criticism of the department's failure to reduce crime statistics. Burrell is ordered by Mayor Clarence Royce to keep the annual murder rate below 275 and cause a 5% decrease in felonies citywide. Royce believes Carcetti will run against him in the forthcoming election and hopes to insulate himself against opponents by campaigning on declining crime statistics.
During the season Burrell works with Carcetti in order to prevent the department from looking worse at the public safety subcommittee meetings. Carcetti offered Burrell more resources for the department in exchange for inside information on the Royce administration. Burrell accepts the offer as Royce provides little support to the department and forces Burrell to take all the blame for the department's problems. Carcetti continues to criticize the department over issues like witness protection but delivers on his promises to Burrell. Burrell begins to see Carcetti as a useful ally in difficult times for the department.
Burrell promotes William Rawls to fill his old position of Deputy Commissioner of Operations. Burrell fails to deliver Daniels his promised promotion to Major due to political conflicts. Daniels' wife Marla is running for the 11th district council seat where one of Royce's loyalists Eunetta Perkins is serving. This supposedly prevents Burrell from approving the promotion. Burrell does allow Daniels his own Major Crimes Unit and they return to investigating Avon Barksdale.
Burrell and Rawls preside over harrowing weekly COMSTAT meetings where they pressure their district commanders to return the favorable crime rate figures that are demanded by Royce. As deputy, Rawls is more outspoken in criticizing the district and operational commanders while Burrell steps in to give a final warning or relieve a commander from their post. Burrell first relieves Major Marvin Taylor as the Eastern District Commander and then threatened Western District Commander Major Howard Colvin when felonies rise 2% in his district.
Major Colvin responds by allowing drug dealing to continue unchecked in specific areas and the felony rate drops. Colvin conceals his strategy from his superiors and they become suspicious of his statistics. Upon learning the truth about Colvin's success, Burrell forces Colvin to take his vacation time immediately. He then informs Royce of the sanctioned drug dealing zones. Royce considers sustaining the initiative because of its positive effects. While Royce procrastinates, Burrell became convinced the Mayor looks to blame the department directly. Burrell tells Royce he will go to the press and tell them that Colvin's initiative was the result of extreme pressure from City Hall to reduce crime statistics by any means necessary. The threat calls into question Royce's chances of re-election and Burrell softens it with an offer to take full responsibility for Colvin's actions provided that Royce makes him commissioner for a full term. Burrell leaks the story to Carcetti and the massive media attention forces Royce to accept Burrell's offer.
Burrell has Rawls shut down Colvin's drug tolerant zones soon after Royce caves to his demands. Burrell also has Colvin demoted to lieutenant and forced to retire from the department early with the assistance of loyal Internal Investigations Division commander Major Bobby Reed. Burrell uses Colvin as a scapegoat and deflects political fallout from Royce as promised. Colvin complies with Burrell's demands because Burrell threatens to involve the men under Colvin's command in the Western District. Burrell has Colvin humiliated further by personally informing Johns Hopkins University of Colvin's misdeeds and costing him his retirement job with Campus Security.
Daniels' major crimes unit makes a fortuitous arrest of Avon Barksdale at the same time as the Colvin scandal allowing Burrell to further divert media attention. Following the arrest, Burrell gives Daniels his promotion to Major, and Daniels assumes command of the Western District in the post left open by Colvin's dismissal.
Burrell continues as police Commissioner and remains a key member of Royce's inner circle. Royce is outraged when the major crimes unit begins serving subpoenas against key political figures without his knowledge. After a dressing down from the Mayor, Burrell promises to prevent any more surprises from his department. Burrell then asks Rawls if McNulty is responsible for this given his previous acts of insubordination, but Rawls suggests that Lester Freamon is behind the subpoenas as McNulty had left the unit. Rawls recommends controlling the subpoenas by "proper supervision" of the unit. This involves removing the lenient Lieutenant Jimmy Asher and replacing him with the hostile and caustic Lieutenant Charles Marimow.
When Burrell fails to bring a murdered witness to the Mayor's attention before it became a campaign issue, Royce orders Burrell to downplay the story to the press and take the political fallout on himself. Royce also instructs Burrell to slow the investigation down to suppress information about the motive for the murder surfacing until after the election. Royce wants to prevent it being proved that the killing was carried out because of the victim's witness status. Burrell orders Foerster to reassign the veteran primary investigator, Ed Norris, and replace him with Kima Greggs, now a rookie homicide detective. This proves to be a mistake as the change of investigators gets leaked to the press. Royce then summons Burrell and Rawls, criticizing Burrell for the problems within his department that allowed the leak. Royce angrily dismisses Burrell only to keep Rawls after the discussion. Royce admires Rawls' loyal subordination to the chain of command and claims that he will "not forget" Rawls clearing these incidents up, implying that Burrell will lose his commissioner's post following the election. Royce however loses to Carcetti in the democratic primary election and Burrell manages to keep his commissioner's post.
Once Carcetti is elected, he asks Burrell to resign as commissioner. Burrell refuses and tells Carcetti that he would have to fire him and that if he leaves, he will not go quietly. Carcetti at the same time can't fire Burrell without having ready an African American replacement due to political reasons. Finding a replacement is further complicated by a lack of ranking African American officers in the department besides Burrell. There is only one African American Deputy Commissioner named Hawthorne, who is over 70 years old, and no African American officers over the rank of Colonel. The next highest ranking African Americans in the department are Majors and Shift Lieutenants, most of whom such as Major Bobby Reed are loyal to Burrell and his methods of policing. To work around this, Carcetti decides to strip Burrell of his power as commissioner and give all decision making up to Rawls, while leaving Burrell as a figurehead for the press and ministers.
Burrell gets concerned when Carcetti orders the promotion of Daniels to Colonel and Criminal Investigations Division commander. Burrell views Daniels as being nothing more than Carcetti's "Boy" and is afraid that Carcetti plans to make Daniels his replacement. With Daniels' promotion from Major to Colonel after only a short time as Major, Burrell's future in the department becomes bleak.
Burrell proves himself a valuable political aide to the Mayor in the handling of brutality charges against Herc, tricked by Bubbles into stopping a car driven by an African American minister, getting him accused of racial profiling. Burrell recommends the Internal Investigations Division look deep into Herc's file because his time in narcotics would probably show further poor conduct according to his past experiences with narcotics detectives.
Burrell meets with State Senator Clay Davis to discuss preventing Daniels from advancing further in the department. Burrell is in possession of FBI information showing Daniels had unexplained income while working in the Eastern District. As the season closes, Burrell warns Rawls never to cross him again as Rawls' own hopes for promotion have been shattered by the political climate necessitating an African American commander.
Burrell continues to serve as Commissioner more than a year into Carcetti's term, and is forced to deal with massive spending cuts despite the Mayor's promises that the BPD would receive more funding. Morale in the department is extremely low as Burrell cuts operating funds as instructed. However, he successfully convinces Carcetti to lift the cap on secondary employment in order to bolster morale. Meanwhile, Clay Davis faces a corruption investigation by the Major Crimes Unit (MCU), and appeals to Burrell for protection. Burrell is unable to do so, as Daniels commands both the CID and the MCU and enjoys a direct connection to Carcetti. Davis angrily threatens Burrell.
Carcetti is leaked a copy of statistics showing an increase in crime by Deputy Commissioner for Administration Stanislaus Valchek. Valchek hopes to usurp Burrell's position as commissioner but Carcetti decides that he will have to accept rising crime given the funding cuts he has imposed. However, Burrell delivers altered statistics to the Mayor despite Carcetti's insistence on clean numbers. Carcetti finally has the political capital he needs to fire Burrell and leaks a story about a potential shake up in the police department to the papers. Burrell is devastated when he reads the story, which relates that Carcetti will promote Rawls to acting commissioner temporarily while Daniels is groomed for the job with a short posting as Deputy Commissioner (Carcetti does not think Valchek is suitable).
Burrell plans to expose Daniels' history of corruption but is talked into leaving quietly by city council president Nerese Campbell. Campbell uses the promise of a lucrative replacement position to mollify Burrell. Burrell agrees to attend a press conference with Carcetti and to allow the transitions in the department to go ahead in order to secure his new job. In a humanizing moment when facing his departure, Burrell revealed his bitterness at having to accommodate interference and schizophrenic policy making from the Mayor's office throughout his career. He warned Rawls that he could expect the same treatment.