D.C. Police Chief Lanier defends demoting Hilton Burton from commander ranks

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that D.C. Police Cmdr. Hilton Burton had been demoted in 2008, and his rank subsequently restored, after Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier accused him of using his departmental e-mail account and cellphone to send sexual messages to a woman working in his department. The accusation came from a private citizen, and the woman to whom he was accused of sending messages did not work for the police department. This version has been corrected.

August 9, 2011

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier on Tuesday defended her demotion of a high-level commander whose unit provided a controversial police escort for Charlie Sheen in April when the actor was late for a performance.

The announcement came on the same day that the police union criticized Lanier’s continued devotion to her “All Hands on Deck” initiative, which alters thousands of officers’ work schedules in order to deploy them throughout the city’s neighborhoods.

In a news conference, Lanier said that Hilton Burton, who led the Special Operations Division, had been transferred. The move came two months after Burton and Lanier sparred during a hearing before the D.C. Council over the department’s practice of providing police escorts for visiting celebrities.

Lanier denied Tuesday that Burton’s council testimony led to the demotion, saying he had underperformed in his role. She did not detail his performance.

“I have to base my confidence in my command staff based on the decisions they make,” Lanier said. “The performance of the command members matters every day.”

Special Operations officers who were off duty gave Sheen a high-speed escort from Dulles International Airport to DAR Constitution Hall on April 19.

The Sheen episode cast an unusual public light on the Special Operations post. The division rarely interacts with the public, but the commander’s job is highly visible within the department because of its responsibility for arranging presidential motorcades, responding to bomb threats, and overseeing specialized motorcycle and helicopter units.

In an interview Tuesday, Burton said he was now a captain 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.

Assistant Chief Lamar D. Greene, who Burton said was his supervising chief, told him that Lanier “has lost confidence in my ability to lead,” Burton said.

Burton added that he was given several reasons for the demotion, including relating to his command of barricade situations and handling of some administrative matters. But Burton said he believes that his demotion was “absolutely retaliation over my testimony” before the council.

Greene did not return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Lanier maintained Tuesday that her “All Hands on Deck” initiative does not violate labor law despite Friday’s ruling by the city’s Public Employee Relations Board that hundreds of officers could be entitled to retroactive overtime pay, which could total millions of dollars. Lanier said the board made a narrow legal decision that addressed only two deployments in 2009.

But Kristopher Baumann, Fraternal Order of Police chairman, said Lanier’s stance would push the police union to submit grievances for 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011. The potential for more union action means the city could face paying more money in retroactive overtime and a protracted legal battle.

“The District is unwilling to comply with these legal decisions,” Baumann said. “If they are going to continue in defiance of the law, we will go ahead and do what we normally do, which is litigate and prevail.”

Baumann said the union could file the additional grievances as early as this week.

Like “All Hands on Deck,” the celebrity police escorts became another contentious issue for Lanier. During the four-hour council hearing in June, Burton and Lanier disagreed over department practice regarding the escorts. Burton said it had been common to escort celebrities for at least nine years and shared a list of 47 trips. That period would have included some of the time in which Lanier headed that division.

Lanier said that while police have escorted dignitaries and some sports teams for public-safety reasons, it was not policy to escort celebrities. During the hearing, she presented copies of some requests that had been rejected during her tenure.

Escorts for sports teams or performers during big events, including a presidential inaugural, were provided to ensure crowd control, Lanier said at the hearing. She told the D.C. Council that Internal Affairs would investigate several years-old trips for entertainers that appeared on Burton’s list to determine the reasons.

Burton and Lanier, both 21-year veterans of the department, have had an up-and-down professional relationship. In 2008, when Burton was commander of the 4th Police District, Lanier demoted him after he had been accused of sending sexual messages from his department e-mail account and cellphone to a woman. Lanier eventually restored his rank and moved him to Special Operations.

Burton has pending litigation against the department. He is seeking lost salary and damages over the earlier demotion and has alleged race- and gender-based bias by Lanier in personnel moves.

Staff writer Allison Klein contributed to this report.

Mary Pat Flaherty works on investigative and long-range stories. Her work has won numerous national awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
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