The Bollard’s View


nterim police chief Tim Burton (left) faces a legacy of former chief Mike Chitwood: ill will between rank-and-file cops and the top brass. (sculptures/Meghan Busby, photo/The Fuge)
nterim police chief Tim Burton (left) faces a legacy of former chief Mike Chitwood: ill will between rank-and-file cops and the top brass. (sculptures/Meghan Busby, photo/The Fuge)

Meet the new boss… 

Acting Portland Police Chief Tim Burton has excellent credentials to replace Mike Chitwood as the city’s permanent top cop. Born and raised in Portland, the 46-year-old has been on the force for half his life. He’s risen steadily through the ranks, and became one of two deputy chiefs in 1998. Prior to being appointed interim chief upon Chitwood’s departure last summer, he oversaw the department’s patrol division, a duty he was assigned in mid-2002.

But Burton also has one big honkin’ drawback: over half of the men and women on the force don’t want him to be their boss. And of the 113 rank-and-file officers represented by the Police Benevolent Association, three-quarters rejected Burton in favor of the other finalist for the job, Clearwater police captain Anthony Holloway, according to the results of a recent union vote.

The PBA is the union that represents the detectives and beat cops who make up the majority of the force. These are the cops that ordinary citizens most often interact with, the ones who show up when you get into a fender-bender or roll through a stop sign, when you call to report a crime or are the victim of a crime. They’re usually the ones who have to hunt down and chase the Bad Guys, who break up fistfights in the Old Port, who get beat up and, on occasion, deliver a little head-butt themselves, or worse. 

These are the cops Burton directly oversaw as the deputy chief in charge of patrol. The men and women in the PBA have firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to work for him; many have undoubtedly served under him for years. And given the choice between a police captain from Florida and their current boss, 85 of them chose Holloway. Eight supported Burton. (Fifteen abstained and five union members were unavailable to vote.)

The PBA presented this vote result to City Manager Joe Gray in a mid-October letter that made their preference for Holloway clear. Gray’s reaction?

“‘I’m taking input from all parties on this but I’m not going to make a recommendation based on a poll,'” he told PBA members during an Oct. 21 meeting in his office, according to an interview in the Portland Press Heraldpublished Oct. 26. “I will make a recommendation (to the City Council) based on who I believe is going to provide the leadership the Portland Police Department requires.”

A day after the article appeared, Gray officially announced his recommendation: Tim Burton. 

Got that, officer? Sure, you had a union representative on one of the two panels that narrowed the list of applicants, but from here on Mr. Gray will decide what kind of boss you require, and you can stick your poll you-know-where. So what if most of you want the other finalist for the job? That’s no basis on which to make the actual recommendation to the council.

The PBA has gotten this kind of dismissive response from Gray before. In fact, just before they sued the city to get access to what’s called the McLaran Report. Written by former chief Bill McLaran in early 2002 – copies were finally given to the PBA and made public late last year — the report was a synopsis of private interviews McLaran conducted with the rank-and-file and some of their supervising officers. 

Burton was not singled out in this scathing report the way Chitwood or current Deputy Chief Bill Ridge were, but neither was he an exception to their harsh criticism of “the command staff,” which officers told McClaran was “aloof, does not care about them, does not seek their concerns or ideas….” Sound familiar? 

The powers that be would have us believe this is all water under the Casco Bay Bridge by now. But every time the tidewaters flow under that bridge, another tide brings them right back out, doesn’t it?

After a spate of costly police brutality claims, after the federal Department of Justice was called in to review department policies and practices, after the feds completed their review, after the McClaran Report was released, and after Chitwood resigned to take a job in a suburb of Philly, Gray and the top brass have stood at the podium to tell us the police department is doing great, moving forward, implementing necessary changes, planning further improvements, etc. 

Now, if they could just get the actual cops on the streets to believe this rosy picture, we’d be all set. Clearly, most cops aren’t buying it. They’re not happy. They weren’t happy back in 2002, when they poured out their anger and frustration about Chitwood and his top staff to McLaran behind closed doors; and they’re not happy now, with Gray recommending Chitwood’s right-hand-man to head what is essentially the same police administration. 

A cop’s job is stressful enough without adding strife within the department. An unhappy cop is more likely to be a bad cop, or at least a cop in a really bad mood. Think of how you deal with the public when you’re pissed off about your job, your boss. Wouldn’t you rather deal with Officer Friendly than Officer Frustrated when you need the police? 

This is not to say the men and women in uniform are taking their frustrations out on the public. Some may be, but most uphold the code of conduct the job requires at all times. In keeping with the same code, they also keep their opinions about the department to themselves – at least in situations where they can be identified or held accountable (officially or unofficially) by their superiors for their criticism. 

This is a key point, one the citizens of Portland and, most importantly now, the city councilors who’ll vote on Gray’s recommendation this Nov. 7 need to understand and appreciate. They need to put themselves in a beat cop’s shoes, or at least find a way to hear the cops’ concerns about Burton before voting him into a non-elected position he can hold for decades to come.

Police departments are quasi-military operations in their structure and code of conduct. Just like the young grunts dodging shrapnel in Iraq aren’t really free to write letters to the hometown newspaper criticizing their commander-in-chief, so the rank-and-file officers aren’t exactly free to publicly criticize their chief and commanders. 

Furthermore, they’re in a labor union with its own structure and rules. After Gray made his recommendation public last week, the Press Herald noted that PBA president Scott Dunham supported the choice, though it wasn’t what you could call a ringing endorsement. “Whoever got the job, our main concern is the betterment of the department,” Detective Dunham told the daily. “It doesn’t really matter who is in charge.”

If you can’t read between those lines, you’re not reading. What do you expect Dunham to say? He and the rest of his union have limited choices in this situation, none of them appealing: make a big stink and further erode inter-department morale; go on strike on the eve of a long, cold, expensive winter; quit and seek work in another department (a choice too many Portland cops have already made); or suck it up and pretend you don’t care who gets the job (the option they’re currently taking).

Members of the PBA “clearly have come down in favor of a particular candidate (Holloway),” City Councilor Peter O’Donnell told the Press Herald. “I don’t understand why.”

Well, Peter, I suggest you and your fellow councilors make it your business to understand why before you let the rubber stamp fall on this matter. The consequences of your decision are too important to do otherwise. 

Maybe it’s time for another McLaran-style series of venting sessions, and this time, maybe the cops and the councilors can see the report those sessions produce without the courts getting involved. 

“There is concern that the City Council does not have an understanding of what a police officer’s job entails, the pressures they face and the frustrations of the job,” McClaran wrote to Chitwood after his talks with officers in 2002.

The more things change…

— Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard.