Demoted D.C. police commander files civil suit

A onetime D.C. police commander whose unit was involved in a controversial high-speed police escort for actor Charlie Sheen has filed a multimillion-dollar civil suit against city officials, claiming that he was demoted after testifying against his superiors at a D.C. Council hearing on the incident.

D.C. police Capt. Hilton B. Burton sued the District, Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, and assistant chiefs Lamar Greene and Alfred Durham for “infliction of emotional distress.” The lawsuit, filed under the District’s Whistleblower Protection Act, seeks at least $6 million in damages and the reinstatement of Burton’s position.

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Burton’s former unit, the special operations division, or SOD, approved the use of police lights and sirens to escort Sheen from Dulles International Airport into the District when Sheen was running late for an April 19, 2011, performance at DAR Constitution Hall.

At a June 2011 council hearing on the matter, Burton and Lanier disagreed about standard departmental practices for conducting escorts. Burton also alleged that another officer’s transfer from the special operations division to patrol work was related to the Sheen incident.

Lanier said the department’s policies on providing escorts are explicit and allow escorts for the president, vice president and foreign heads of state, with some “case-by-case” allowances for other requests based on public safety concerns.

Burton was later demoted from commander to captain, a move of two ranks. In his lawsuit, filed late Tuesday, the demotion was characterized as “retaliation” by Lanier and other District officials.

Burton was also transferred from special operations and given an “unfavorable performance review.”

Burton and his attorneys contend that the demotion was a result of Burton’s detailing examples of what he considers “gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, misuse or waste of public resources or funds.”

At the time of his demotion, Lanier said Burton had underperformed in his position. She declined to detail the reasons for her dissatisfaction with Burton’s performance.

The Sheen episode cast an unusual public light on the special operations division. The commander’s job is highly visible within the department because of the responsibility for arranging presidential motorcades, responding to bomb threats, and overseeing specialized motorcycle and helicopter units.

After his demotion, Burton was assigned to the D.C. Police & Fire Clinic, which conducts physicals for new officers and evaluates injured officers. He had commanded the special operations division since May 2010. He was detailed to the fire department’s internal affairs office in May 2012.

Lanier had disciplined Burton before. In 2008, when he was commander of the 4th Police District, she demoted him after he was accused of sending a woman sexual messages from his departmental e-mail account and cellphone. Lanier eventually restored his rank and moved him to special operations.

Burton and his attorneys have requested a jury trial. A hearing in the lawsuit was scheduled for Nov. 9 before D.C. Superior Court Judge Erik P. Christian.

Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.

 
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