A demoted Metropolitan Police Department captain lost his whistleblower lawsuit Wednesday against Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, with a jury deciding his claims were not protected information.
Former Cmdr. Hilton Burton alleged that his demotion was retaliation for publicly challenging statements the chief made about the department’s celebrity escort practices.
The Metropolitan Police Department came under fire after actor Charlie Sheen tweeted photos in April 2011 indicating he received a high-speed police escort from Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia to a performance in the District.
But an eight-member jury found that testimony Capt. Burton gave before the D.C. Council about the Special Operations Division’s celebrity escort practices was not protected information under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The jury therefore did not consider claims of whether Capt. Burton’s demotion was retaliatory.
Chief Lanier testified during the 10-day trial that Capt. Burton was demoted due to inadequate performance as the head of the Special Operations Division, including his handling of three barricade incidents.
“I felt he was not operating at the level of commander,” Chief Lanier testified Friday on the stand.
The chief testified that Assistant Chief Alfred Durham had recommended Capt. Burton’s demotion shortly after a June 14, 2011, barricade in Mount Pleasant in which a mentally ill man was fatally shot by responding officers.
However, Chief Lanier suggested giving Capt. Burton more time until an investigation into the incident was completed. It was not until July 17, 2011 — the month after Capt. Burton testified before the D.C. Council on the Charlie Sheen escort — that Chief Lanier received a written memo recommending the demotion.
Talking to reporters after the ruling, Chief Lanier said she was grateful for the jury’s ruling in her favor.
“Although it was difficult to listen to attacks on my credibility, the truth came out in the end,” the police chief said. “Unfortunately, we sometimes have members that try to take advantage of the system and publicly spread misinformation for their own gain.”
As a result of the jury’s determination, no damages were awarded in the case.
Capt. Burton had sought $1 million in compensatory and $1 million in punitive damages.
“Right now, I’m trying to take it all in,” said Capt. Burton, unsure whether he might appeal of the decision.
In the aftermath of his lawsuit, Capt. Burton said he thinks the case may have a chilling effect on officers who seek to challenge other decisions made by the chief.
“People feel that she’s invincible. Now who’s going to stand up to her?” he said.
He said he also worries about the fate of officers who testified on his behalf during the trial.
“There were some people who stood up with me and for me and now I have to worry about how they’re going to be treated,” Capt. Burton said.