We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The story by Jason Cherkis regarding Sgt. Phil Burton, now retired from the Metropolitan Police Department (“Never Let Go,” 2/23), is a masterpiece of hard-hitting and incisive journalism. I was appointed to the MPD in 1966, was promoted to sergeant in 1970, and retired as a sergeant in 1988. I must say at the beginning that I did not know Phil except in a most casual way. I neither worked in the 3rd District nor was ever “privileged” to rate any coveted position in the police department whatsoever. What society outside of large departments is largely unaware of is the internal ethos and mores that, in fact, are the deterministic dynamics of internal regulation.
Apparently, Burton realized early on that any display of intellectualism toward his superiors, generally the “White Shirts,” would be very problematic for him, and therefore an attitude of purposefulness and seriousness was required. Burton decided to immerse himself in his work, and quite to the chagrin of management, he devoted his whole body and soul to serving the city. Burton became a rarity in the MPD: a policeman. The general public is perhaps unaware that, contrary to what is shown on The District, officers like [Burton] in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s generated a fair amount of residual work for managementwhich management despised.
When I was appointed to the department, the going mantra was, “Whiskey, women, and property” will get you in trouble. I found out rather quickly that whiskey got nobody in trouble; I worked with numerous officers and supervisors who drank on duty regularly. As far as women and property go, I really do not recall anyone being disciplined seriously, or even at all, for peccadilloes in these areas. The mortal sin in the MPD was appearing wiser and a bit more cerebral than the managers. I spent 22 years pushing a patrol car in the “mean” streets because management saw my intellectual and verbal arrogance as designed to make them look less than smart. How many people you locked up or the quality of your cases was never a standard in the MPD.
There is no question that Burton was different, yet it is extraordinary that in his persona there is not a hint of arrogance or hubris toward his superiors; he simply employed a consistent and unyielding zealotry to the job at hand, and, in doing so, he found all of these subtle roadblocks set up by his superiors. I can say with some confidence that not one of the senior MPD managers mentioned in the article ever spent much time in court with people they arrested. Each and every one of them is a beneficiary of Realpolitik. The only standard for promotion in the MPD is whether the candidate is a “team player.” What that really means is that you are properly deferential and obsequious toward management. Iconoclasts like Burton will find no support in that self-serving community. My belief is that if you are not locking people up for crime, we need to take a look at you and find ways to fire you. The working officer needs to be recognized, and only he or she should ever be promoted.
I cannot comment on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Burton’s cases. In my own experience, I found the people there to be arrogant and distasteful to deal with, but those encounters were a long time ago. It is clear, however, that Burton has been “spun,” and I have no clear answer as to why. I would, however, posit that arrests, like anything else in the District, have a racial component. An investigator must always be aware that, in an arrest, some racial difficulties may occur, that subjects of ongoing investigations may have friends in high places, and that investigators may be given the runaround. The investigator finds him- or herself subject to the full blast of departmental rule enforcement: All of a sudden and without warning, you cannot walk into your office without some silly and arcane departmental regulation being applied. At the end of my career, I found myself the object of constant and unremitting scrutiny; whatever I did was roundly criticized. And so I retired.
It would be easy to say that Burton is obsessive, and perhaps he is, but we as a community are well-served by Burton and the few like him. There are supervisors in the MPD who graduated from the “Ivies.” Unlike Burton, they arrested no one in their careers, but because they were able to subordinate any visible intellectualism whatsoever, and even though they never offered up any creativity in police thinking (thereby threatening their less-talented peers), they rose right to the top of the department.
I am not sure where Burton’s extraordinary, unremitting zeal for justice is going to take him or his case. It is pretty clear that a group of scoundrels need to be charged with some crimes. Not only does Burton know it, so do the folks at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the senior managers of the MPD who are familiar with his case.
Some of us live and think quite differently from the general population. We have seen too much death and misery; it has entered into the very fiber of our very being. Some, like Burton, just never go away. Thank God for them.
American University Park