Chief: Decisions have evolved

Franklin police department chief now reports all incidents to merit board

The Franklin police chief never told the board that oversees the hiring, firing and disciplining of officers that one of the patrolmen was under criminal investigation in 2013 for domestic violence.

They also didn’t know about a 2011 Edinburgh police report and criminal investigation after witnesses heard the same officer tell another man that he would rather kill him than look at him again.

During another domestic disturbance at the home of Franklin police officer Bryan K. Burton in July 2015, his wife, Jordan Burton reported that her husband grabbed her on the arm, but she did not have pain, a report said. The merit board was not told, and Burton was not disciplined.

A year later, in August of 2016, when police were called to the Burton home again due to a domestic dispute, officers determined the dispute was verbal only and took no action. This time, police Chief Tim O’Sullivan told the merit board, even though Burton did not face any discipline.

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The inconsistencies in what the chief, whose job it is to manage the nearly 50-officer police department and bring allegations of officer wrongdoing to the police merit board, reported to the merit board through the years are due to an evolution of his practice and unwritten policy as he has learned more about his job as chief, O’Sullivan said.

The city has policies about what offenses police officers can be disciplined for, but whether an officer’s conduct rises to that level is up to the chief’s discretion.

O’Sullivan started his job as chief in 2011, when Burton was facing felony criminal charges relating to his work as a narcotics investigator. But he didn’t automatically tell the merit board, which was asked to fire Burton at that time, about every police report naming Burton as a suspect.

O’Sullivan said he initially only told the merit board about reports or complaints against Burton or other officers if they could be substantiated and if the officer was reprimanded and his or her personnel file noted. He has learned through the years that the merit board should likely be told about all complaints or reports, even if they are deemed unfounded or unsubstantiated in the department’s internal investigation, he said.

He said in the most recent incident — when Burton was arrested in October on a felony domestic battery charge — is different than the others in that O’Sullivan has been able to explain how Burton’s conduct was unbecoming an officer. Burton was arrested in October on a felony charge of domestic battery and faces an internal disciplinary hearing that begins today due to his conduct during a meeting with the chief and during the domestic dispute at his home involving his wife, Jordan Burton.

He does not face a criminal charge.

The incidents

In 2011, Edinburgh police were called when witnesses heard Burton threaten a man. Burton was not arrested and no criminal charge was filed after the matter was reviewed by the Bartholomew County Prosecutor’s Office.

O’Sullivan did not report the incident to the merit board or ask for any discipline, and said he spoke to Burton about the incident, which occurred while Burton was suspended from his job as a police officer and facing felony criminal charges of official misconduct and a misdemeanor charge of battery relating to his work as a police officer. Those criminal charges were later dropped.

Two years later, police were called to Burton’s home on a report of domestic violence. Franklin officers took an initial report of a domestic due to custodial interference, according to a Franklin police report. State police were called to investigate to avoid a conflict of interest for Franklin police officers, since Burton is also a patrolman.

Burton was not arrested or charged. The chief did not discipline Burton for the incident, and didn’t tell the merit board or request it impose any discipline.

O’Sullivan can suspend police officers for up to five days without pay, but any additional discipline has to be handed down by the merit board. The chief did not suspend Burton or tell the merit board about the 2013 report or investigation because the matter was not considered substantiated, but was a he-said vs. she-said report, O’Sullivan said.

Details of what had occurred at the home that March have not been released by Franklin police due to the upcoming disciplinary hearing or by the Indiana State Police due to its policy.

In July 2015, Franklin police were again called to the Burton home on a report of domestic violence. Jordan Burton told officers that her husband had grabbed her on the arm, but she did not have pain. No one was arrested and no criminal charges were filed. Burton was not disciplined.

O’Sullivan again did not tell the merit board. His thought at the time was that the Franklin police officers who responded that day did not arrest Burton, and that Jordan Burton told officers that she did not have pain from being grabbed, he said.

In considering the July 2015 incident in light of events since then, O’Sullivan said: “In the future, I would have reported that. At the time, there was no action to take against him.”

By the time police were called to the Burton home just more than a year later, in August 2016, for a domestic dispute, O’Sullivan had changed his practice and now attempts to tell the merit board about all reports or complaints against officers, he said.

Franklin police determined that day that the domestic dispute was verbal only, and no one was arrested. This time, O’Sullivan told the merit board, but just for informational purposes, not to seek discipline against Burton.

O’Sullivan said his effort to tell the merit board about all reports regarding officers — both good and bad — is so that he can never be questioned about why a report was or wasn’t made or be accused of being unfair to officers.

“No way anybody can come back and point fingers and say I gave preferential treatment to one officer over another,” O’Sullivan said.

When Burton was arrested in October, O’Sullivan suspended him the next day, and in less than 48 hours asked the merit board to fire the 15-year veteran.

“It’s only different in that in this current case, he was arrested, and in my mind I was able to articulate that he committed conduct unbecoming an officer,” O’Sullivan said.

City policy

The job of informing the merit board of officers’ wrongdoings, and in some cases bringing internal charges before the board for consideration of discipline, falls to O’Sullivan as chief. He said he now makes sure that the police merit board knows about officers’ commendations and about reprimands or internal investigations.

In his earlier years as chief, he only told the merit board about incidents that resulted in a police officer being honored or reprimanded, and notice being put in the officer’s personnel file. Now, he tries to tell the merit board about all incidents, even if they are unsubstantiated. If a matter is investigated and noted in O’Sullivan’s administrative employee file, the merit board is told, even if the allegation can’t be proven, he said.

“I think that it’s best the merit board knows about everything that goes on and that we are transparent about it,” O’Sullivan said.

City policies and merit board regulations give the chief discretion in what to report to the board. The chief has the authority to allege that an officer is guilty of a breach of conduct and ask the merit board to take action.

The merit board can automatically terminate any police officer if he or she is convicted of a crime. But a criminal conviction isn’t the only cause for termination or discipline. The board can discipline police officers if they find an officer guilty of neglect of duty, neglect or disobedience of orders, immoral conduct or conduct unbecoming a police officer, for example.

Criminal review

A state police detective assigned to the 2013 domestic violence report met with Johnson County Prosecutor Chief Deputy Joe Villanueva, who decided that no criminal charge would be filed and characterized the matter as a “he said/she said” situation, with neither person cooperating with the investigation and no evidence of an injury or independent witnesses, according to a 2013 email from Villanueva to the state police.

Johnson County Prosecutor Brad Cooper said that because the state police did not submit formal paperwork to his office, but rather conducted a meeting with one of his deputy prosecutors, the case was not logged into his office’s database of all criminal cases that are reviewed.

Indiana State Police First Sgt. Stoney Vann, investigations commander of the Indianapolis post, said that state police detectives typically don’t provide a probable-cause affidavit alleging charges when they meet with one of the 92 county prosecutor’s offices across Indiana to review cases. Rather, the prosecutors’ offices draft the affidavit, and the state police investigator helps as needed and signs the document.

Cooper said he did not request a special prosecutor review the matter because Burton was no longer an undercover narcotics officer with hundreds of pending drug dealing cases, and the allegation against him did not arise out of his police work.

Cooper had called for a special prosecutor in 2010 after a state police investigation into Burton’s conduct as a Franklin drug detective. Charges were filed but later dismissed.

Burton remained a Franklin patrolman and after his 2016 arrest, Cooper asked for a special prosecutor to review the case, citing a conflict of interest because he had hired Burton for a construction job at his home. That conflict did not exist during the 2013 review, Cooper said.

Cooper said he and his deputies regularly review officer-involved cases without calling for a special prosecutor. He cited police-action shootings and a criminal review of a theft allegation against a sheriff’s deputy as examples and said whether to seek a special prosecutor is done on a case-by-case basis.

At a glance

The Franklin Police Merit Commission will meet today to conduct a disciplinary hearing regarding Officer Bryan K. Burton.

Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan has asked that Burton be terminated.

The merit board has to determine whether Burton is guilty of a breach of discipline on the specific internal charges O’Sullivan has brought forth. Those charges are conduct unbecoming an officer and conduct injurious to the public peace and welfare.

If they determine he is guilty, the merit board can suspend, demote or terminate Burton, and also require additional training or programming.

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Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.