A Franklin police officer facing termination was trained in how to de-escalate a situation and knew his wife’s history, but instead grabbed her in the presence of children and acted in an angry, violent way, an attorney for the police department said during the officer’s disciplinary hearing this week.
But the attorney for patrolman Bryan K. Burton tried to cast doubt on the allegations against the officer, saying that he had done everything he could to keep his wife and children from being injured that day, he didn’t have time to think to tell his teenage son to stop interfering in the dispute and that he has tried for years to help manage her permanent disability from a traumatic brain injury and the problems that it causes in their marriage.
The issue facing the Franklin Police Merit Commission is whether it is more likely than not that Burton behaved in such a way during a domestic incident at his home Oct. 23 as to bring dishonor and disrespect to the police department. Burton and his wife Jordan Burton were both arrested on felony domestic battery charges that day, but no formal charges were filed. A second disciplinary charge is that he lied to the chief.
Merit board members heard testimony from 12 people, including eight officers of the Franklin Police Department and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, for more than eight hours Wednesday.
Franklin Police Chief Tim O’Sullivan is asking that Burton be fired. The merit commission is expected to reach a decision in a meeting May 2. If the members find Burton guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer or conduct injurious to the public peace or welfare, they could choose to suspend or terminate him, or require programming or training.
“The public expects their police to be honest and forthcoming and do what’s right,” O’Sullivan said. Burton’s behavior invites public suspicion of the police department, O’Sullivan said.
“I think it affects community trust,” he said.
Since joining the Franklin Police Department 15 years ago, Burton has been the focus of four criminal investigations conducted by police and prosecutors. He has never been convicted of a crime.
Within the police department, Burton has faced a range of disciplinary actions, including multiple reprimands and two suspensions handed down by the merit board. He’s been told he must wear his seat belt, has been re-assigned from detective to patrolman, ordered to undergo alcohol evaluations and suspended for falling asleep on the job.
But at issue in this disciplinary hearing is what happened Oct. 23, when a child told a 911 dispatcher that his dad had grabbed his mom. Police officers, Bryan Burton and a neighbor all testified as to what they observed at the Burton home that day.
Police department attorney Doug Kessler demonstrated for the commission members how the child had a clear vantage point and pointed out that Jordan Burton had been adamant with responding officers that her husband had grabbed her. Photos of injuries on her arm substantiate her initial report, he said.
Jordan Burton did not answer questions about the incident.
Bryan Burton’s attorney, Jay Hoffman, argued that O’Sullivan didn’t conduct a thorough investigation and too quickly reached a decision to seek Burton’s termination. He cited as examples the fact that the chief didn’t convene the internal police review board, and that another officer was offered a lie detector test months before the Burton arrest and the results were used to clear the officer of wrongdoing in an unrelated matter.
O’Sullivan said the circumstances involving the other officer were different, and that he was not interested in using a lie detector test in the Burton matter.
Kessler painted Burton as a man whose repeated statements shows that he believes he has the right to give his wife permission to leave or not leave with a child, and that he had let Jordan Burton leave with the children, even when she is upset, during previous times in their seven-year relationship. This time was different, Kessler argued, only because Bryan Burton was upset.
Burton said he was concerned about his infant son’s safety and didn’t think it was safe for Jordan Burton to be driving herself or their children in what he called her irrational state. She had ran out of medicine and had not been able to get a refill, and her mood had changed dramatically in recent days, Burton said. The two had separated, but she came back to the home and wanted to leave with their infant son, Bryan Burton said.
His wife was filled with rage and agitation, and tripped when running out of the garage, causing the baby’s body to flop backwards, Burton said.
Bryan Burton said he and his wife had struggled for years due to her traumatic brain injury from a car crash 20 years ago, and that she has mood swings and depression. He said he views his wife as a partner and he doesn’t make commands of her, but he did outline changes she must make because he could no longer deal with the situation, he wrote in his statement during his arrest.
Kessler questioned Burton about why he didn’t use his judgment and training as a police officer, combined with his years of experience with his wife, to walk away from the argument and let Jordan Burton leave, or why it wouldn’t have been more prudent to advise his teenage son to get away from her vehicle.
Burton said he didn’t have time to tell his son to get away from the vehicle.
“All of this could have been avoided if you acted like a police officer, right?” Kessler asked Burton.
Burton’s neighbor testified that he heard Jordan Burton screaming aggressively that day before he heard Bryan Burton yelling, and that he never saw Bryan Burton grab or touch his wife.
Merit board members heard the recording of the 911 call that was made by Jordan Burton’s 14-year-old son, who refers to Bryan Burton as his father. On the tape, the teen tells the dispatcher that his mom and dad are fighting about his 7-month-old stepbrother, and that his dad was taking something out of the front of his mom’s car. The teen was sitting in the car during the call.
“My dad grabbed my mom,” he told the 911 dispatcher, and then added that Burton and Burton’s oldest son wouldn’t let his mom close the car door.
“They said my mom touched my stepbrother when she hasn’t touched him at all,” the boy tells the dispatcher. “Nope, not at all.”
Kessler said the recording has merit because the child was giving a play-by-play account in real time with no chance to reflect or analyze his statements.
Kessler told merit board members that Hoffman and Burton had offered no alternative explanation or evidence for Jordan Burton’s injury, and then outlined how state law defines criminal confinement and domestic battery. Bryan Burton’s actions — and what he didn’t do the day of the domestic incident — put the department in disrepute, Kessler said.
“It diminishes respect,” O’Sullivan said of the impact of Burton’s actions on the rest of the police department and its credibility. “We’re held to a higher standard. We’re supposed to be the model, not the norm, or sub-norm in this case.”
Hoffman tried to cast doubt about whether Jordan’s injuries were caused by being grabbed on the arm by her husband, and told merit commission members that she had been left alone for some time in the home with her mother. Several police officers and sheriff’s deputies testified that Bryan Burton cooperated with the investigation, was excited but acted appropriately and was eager to answer questions about what had happened, which is not typical behavior for someone who had committed felony battery, Hoffman said.
Hoffman asked the merit board to consider how cooperative Burton was with the responding officers at his home that day, his willingness to answer questions, that the chief jumped to a request for termination without additional investigation, that Burton had told his immediate supervisors about his problems at home through the years and that the disciplinary charge relating to the conversation in the chief’s office was intended by the Franklin Police Department to make Burton look bad.
“These aren’t the actions of someone who committed battery,” Hoffman said.
A lay person who is trained in marital counseling at the church the Burtons attend testified on his behalf, saying the couple had started group counseling sessions before, but never completed them. The couple did complete a three-month session that started in January, and she has noticed a true difference in their work on their marriage, she said.
In the end, Kessler told the merit board the issue they needed to consider wasn’t about Jordan Burton’s behavior or whether a special prosecutor chose to file a criminal charge against Bryan Burton. He again showed them a picture of the marks on Jordan Burton’s arm, acknowledging that it may not be the most serious of injuries but “this is injury. This is anger. This speaks to violence.”
A second disciplinary charge Burton faced was due to being dishonest with O’Sullivan during a meeting on Oct. 19. The chief asked him about the condition of his marriage. Burton told him everything was perfect and had never been better, but O’Sullivan said that was not true because police had been called to the home on the report of a verbal domestic dispute in August, and he could have offered help through city programs.
Hoffman and Burton argued that Burton had talked to his supervising officers through the years, and that his marriage was stable the day of the meeting with the chief.
But his written statement he finished after being booked into the Johnson County jail started with a comment about how he and his wife have been having problems for “some time now,” Kessler said. His statement doesn’t make mention of Jordan Burton running out of medication as a major contributor to the Oct. 23 incident.
Hoffman initially questioned all five members of the appointed Franklin Police Merit Commission about their ability to consider only the evidence and testimony presented on Wednesday, not their knowledge of Burton’s previous criminal or disciplinary problems.
Merit commission members were asked by Hoffman at the start of the hearing if they would feel comfortable facing the public after media coverage of the disciplinary and criminal matters if the members decided not to fire Burton. They all said they could.
Hoffman specifically challenged member Dr. John Shafer, who had offered to Burton in a disciplinary hearing two years ago to help him get help for drug or alcohol abuse if needed. Shafer is the director of the counseling center at Franklin College.
Hoffman asked Shafer to remove himself from the hearing, but Shafer declined.