A former D.C. police commander whose division provided a police escort to actor Charlie Sheen last April has given notice that he intends to file a whistleblower lawsuit against the city, saying he was demoted because he testified to the D.C. Council that such escorts for celebrities were commonplace.
Hilton Burton was demoted in August as commander of the special operations division and transferred to the medical services branch. In a whistleblower notice filed with the city and obtained by The Associated, Burton alleges the demotion was punishment for telling the council that there was nothing inappropriate or unusual about the escort provided to Sheen.
His testimony contradicted statements from Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who appeared at the same hearing and has said the escort -- provided with flashing lights and police sirens -- broke with department policy.
Burton, who is now a captain, says in the notice that he was punished because the chief was “displeased with the negative publicity that the Charlie Sheen escort had created” and was upset by his allegations that celebrity escorts had been provided during the years she led the special operations division. He says department management told him at the time of his demotion that there were problems with his performance, but that those concerns had not been raised with him before.
Lanier on Wednesday reissued a statement from August in which she said the decision to demote Burton was “based on a review of command decisions, including several critical incidents.” She has denied that the demotion was in retaliation for the escort or for Burton’s testimony.
“I think the facts will show this was done in retaliation for his having provided whistleblower information to the city council and the (D.C.) office of inspector general,” which also investigated the escort,” said Burton’s lawyer, James Pressler. The suit will seek to have Burton reinstated to his previous rank of commander.
Officers from the special operations division escorted Sheen in April from Washington Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia to a stand-up performance at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington. The escort attracted attention after Sheen posted about it on Twitter. He wrote, “In car with Police escort in front and rear! Driving like someone’s about to deliver a baby! Cop car lights #Spinning!” and also included a photograph of a speedometer that appeared to be registering about 80 mph.
The city was reimbursed more than $445 for the escort, records show.
Lanier said at the time that escorts are generally reserved for the president, vice president, visiting heads of state and other dignitaries who require extraordinary protection, but can be granted on a case-by-case basis if approved by an assistant chief. Sheen’s escort didn’t follow the proper chain of command and should not have been done at high speeds and with flashing lights and sirens, she said.
Documents obtained in May by The Associated Press through a public records request revealed that Jay-Z, Bill Gates and John Wall of the Washington Wizards were among the non-dignitaries who had received police escorts in the last two years, suggesting the practice was more common than initially revealed.
Burton has said he didn’t know about the escort until after it was granted. But he nonetheless defended the escorts at the council hearing as standard practice for the special operations division. Lanier acknowledged at the hearing that there may be legitimate reasons for celebrity escorts, such as for public safety reasons, and said it would be foolish to craft a policy barring such escorts under any and all circumstances. She said the department had identified 17 celebrities who had received escorts since 2002 and was investigating to find out who approved them.
She also said the department was working to clarify its policies on police escorts.
Burton alleged at the hearing that some celebrities received escorts during the years that Lanier commanded the special operations division. Lanier denied approving the escorts while in that position.