D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has stood her ground on discretionary demotions of high-ranking officials who do not toe her line, but one casualty of her rigid approach to discipline is not taking his punishment quietly.
Attorneys for veteran Metropolitan Police Department Capt. Hilton Burton — a once-promising commander who now pushes paper in an obscure unit while counting days until retirement — will argue in the D.C. Court of Appeals on Thursday that he was summarily demoted in violation of his due-process rights, and that Chief Lanier is responsible for “a police department afraid to enforce the written law for fear of retaliation by the hierarchy.”
The Burton hearing is a defining moment for the department. It comes on the heels of a recent ruling by an arbitrator who reinstated an inspector demoted by Chief Lanier and ordered the department to pay back salary and benefits — the latest in an increasing line of adverse rulings for the chief.
A ruling for Capt. Burton in the appeals court would represent a firm rebuke of Chief Lanier’s policies and could once again put the department on the hook for back pay for former commanders.
“If I’ve done something wrong, have a hearing and demote me on the facts,” Capt. Burton said in an interview this week. “Not based upon what Chief Lanier feels at the moment.”
Capt. Burton joined the D.C. department in 1990 after serving in the Army with the 3d Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard). At the department, he rose steadily, achieving the rank of inspector in 2000 and commander in 2003. In 2007, he was accused of inappropriate use of a department computer and, he said, Chief Lanier demoted him to inspector “without cause.”
While the department argued that Chief Lanier has the authority to demote commanders at will and without a hearing, she nevertheless promoted him back to commander of the Special Operations Division in May 2010.
Capt. Burton said he was reinstated because the department had an upcoming hearing in his case and wanted to demonstrate to the court that he had been “made whole.”
But in August, after he testified at a D.C. Council hearing that Chief Lanier had publicly misrepresented the department’s policy with regard to celebrity escorts, Capt. Burton was demoted once again and assigned to the Medical Services Division. “I review policies,” he said of his current job.
Capt. Burton said the department cited numerous reasons for his demotion, including a police barricade in Mount Pleasant in which a man died. “All of the issues they cited took place months ago and had nothing to do with my performance,” he said. “I was demoted in reference to my testimony before the city council.”
He said that he has received no documentation to support reasons for his demotion, and that his complaints to the mayor’s office and the D.C. Council have fallen on deaf ears. “That’s the most surprising thing,” he said, “that no one will stand up and say that the chief is wrong and that her actions are going to cost the taxpayers of the District.”
Chief Lanier’s office did not respond to requests for comment. The Office of the Attorney General, which will argue on behalf of Chief Lanier, states in its briefs that Capt. Burton has no right to remain in a rank above captain, regardless of whether his rank was achieved by appointment or promotion as a career officer.
The Court of Appeals, the highest court with local jurisdiction over the District, also will hear an appeal by Capt. Robin Hoey, who was demoted from commander shortly after Chief Lanier took over.
Attorneys for Capt. Hoey will argue that Chief Lanier has discretion to summarily demote only a limited number of her “inner circle of handpicked advisers.”
The two cases figure to punctuate a ruling by Administrative Judge Eric T. Robinson in June that Capt. Kevin Keegan was wrongly demoted from inspector in 2007.
That ruling was merely the latest rejection of the personnel practices of Chief Lanier, who critics say does not respect police due-process rights.
The Keegan ruling also cleared the way for a hearing on an appeal by a former inspector who was summarily demoted because of his staff’s handling of a complaint by Cherita Whiting, a friend of Chief Lanier who was asked to leave her job with the D.C. government earlier this year because she failed to disclose a prior criminal conviction.
It marked the fifth time that Chief Lanier has been overturned after she fired more than a dozen officers who were reinstated on appeal, then refired on questionable advice from the former D.C. attorney general. The remaining cases have since gone against Chief Lanier.
Capt. Burton also is involved in a complaint by a number of D.C. police officials with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that accuses Chief Lanier of discriminating against male commanders she has fired or demoted for infractions that did not result in discipline for their female counterparts.