SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of a pending sexual harassment lawsuit by three female police officers, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank was forced to resign Thursday.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker accused Burbank of failing to take critical action in the aftermath of sexual harassment allegations within his department. But Burbank said he believes the mayor's belated manuevers were nothing more than an effort to keep his seat in an election year.
Burbank said he was given three choices: Publicly read a letter of apology written for him, resign or be terminated.
A defiant Burbank called the letter political and "wholly inappropriate," leaving him no choice but to resign. The mayor's office declined to release that letter Thursday but said it would review whether to make it public later.
Burbank said Becker's ultimatum was fueled by "election politics" and a "political move to get someone elected."
At the first of two hastily called press conferences Thursday afternoon, Becker accused Burbank of inaction when he didn't demote Deputy Chief Rick Findlay in 2014 and failed to implement training and protective procedures for officers after the female officers reported sexual harassment by Findlay the year before.
Instead, Burbank placed Findlay on leave and allowed him to resign as soon as he reached his 20-year mark and became eligible for full retirement benefits.
The fallout after the abuse was brought to light left the women fearing retribution for months, they said, as Burbank failed to respond. They chose to speak publicly about their experiences in the Deseret News last month.
"Chief Burbank's decision was contrary to specific direction from my office," Becker read from a statement on the steps of City Hall. "In recent private conversations with me, he had repeatedly asserted that he believed, and continues to believe, his actions were sufficient. This was also evident in his recent comments to the media on this topic."
In response Thursday, Burbank insisted that he has never allowed or tolerated sexual harassment within the department, and that when the reports surfaced, they were "handled appropriately."
"I firmly believe that the police department and myself personally have handled sexual harassment with zero tolerance," Burbank said.
Burbank leaves the department after nearly 25 years with the Salt Lake police. Burbank said his days in law enforcement are likely over.
"I think I'm done in police work," he said, though asserting that whatever he does next, he wants to continue serving the community and do something to "impact my profession" and "change the dialogue" nationwide.
Deputy Chief Mike Brown will be the interim police chief while the city searches for Burbank's replacement.
As he dismissed the police chief Thursday, Becker came prepared with a letter sent from his chief of staff, David Everitt, to Burbank in June 2014. The five-page document said Burbank's responses to Findlay's case "border on insubordination," going on to outline specific actions the chief needed to take to prevent future harassment within the police force.
The letter reveals that the police chief and the mayor have been at odds for more than a year.
Point by point, Everitt accused Burbank in the letter of deliberately avoiding cooperation with human resources in his "inconsistent and unacceptable" handling of personnel matters, allowing a cultural problem for women to persist in the department, and "running out the clock" in order to get Findlay to retirement before action could be taken.
"Your management of the outcome of the (Findlay) case is specifically contrary to what we agreed upon," Everitt wrote. "No demotion occurred, and no settlement agreement was executed. Instead, you allowed a deputy chief to resign with zero discipline imposed related to sustained allegations of sexual harassment and conduct unbecoming."
Everitt emphasized that "there was no reason this matter should have taken seven months to resolve," spelling out specific times when Burbank ignored, delayed and avoided directions from city officials.
Burbank was given seven points to implement, including: issuing a training bulletin in gender issues and emphasizing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and hostile work environments; developing a written policy for human resources reviews; and establishing a formal and consistent process to review resignations and retirements when misconduct or other issues have been alleged.
Even after receiving the letter, "the police chief did not follow our direction, and has taken only modest steps to implement the strong corrective actions," Becker said Thursday. "We have been monitoring the measures outlined in this corrective letter to Chief Burbank over the past year to determine if he was implementing them within the Salt Lake City Police Department, and while some implementation has taken place, on balance the chief has fallen below my expectations."
Becker also apologized to the women who fell victim to harassment in the police force.
"I want every woman in Salt Lake City government to know that we value your public service and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. My administration has demonstrated over and over again a commitment to gender equality in the workplace," Becker said.
While acknowledging that many will question the intent and timing of the announcement, Becker said time and care was taken addressing the issue in order to protect the women in the case, who until last month had not identified themselves, and to preserve the position of trust Burbank holds in the community.
Becker went on to herald the strides Burbank has taken in establishing community relations and service to the city.
"(Burbank's) strong advocacy for civil rights, protection and inclusion of all residents of the city in our public safety umbrella, and personal actions to recognize the rights of everyone to exercise their First Amendment rights — as he did in the Occupy Salt Lake and Tim DeChristopher protests — defused difficult situations and reflected well on our city and policing," Becker noted. "I'm grateful for his service and that he has stayed as long as he has. But it's now time to turn the page and begin a new chapter in policing in Salt Lake City."
Motivated by politics
Burbank claims he had no idea Thursday would be his last day as police chief. In fact, when he was told he couldn't wear his uniform at his impromptu press conference, he realized he didn't have other clothes to change into.
"This decision is not in the best interests of the public. It's election politics and it's extremely unfortunate," Burbank told reporters. "(It is) fascinating that a year and a half ago this was brought up and resolved, and when a lawsuit becomes public then it becomes an issue that we haven't properly dealt with."
Burbank defended his handling of the claims made against Findlay, saying he responded swiftly and proportionate to the accusations. When he received the letter last year asking him to demote Findlay, Burbank admitted he "did not follow that direction."
"I did what I believed to be consistently fair given the circumstances," Burbank said. "I wanted him out of the workplace. But I also wanted the least amount of impact on my organization and to demote him and have him stay in the environment, he would have earned the exact same amount of money (regardless)."
Burbank said there had been "no discussion" with city officials about the harassment claims between the time when he was asked to demote Findlay and now.
Burbank reiterated that, despite the female officers' claims that they faced retaliation and humiliation after coming forward, he did everything he could to make the process fair for the female officers who made the complaints.
"I grew up in the police department with them. I'm absolutely empathetic to the circumstances surrounding them," he said. "But I am still bound to make decisions that I believe to be the right decisions for the whole of the police department."
Lawsuit still pending
On May 22, the Deseret News identified the three officers and reported that together they had filed a notice of claim with Salt Lake City in October announcing their intent to file a civil rights lawsuit against the city, the department, Findlay and Burbank.
Becker declined to comment for that story saying it was against city policy, but 48 hours later he changed his mind. On a Sunday night, the mayor issued a statement calling sexual harassment and any retaliation unacceptable.
Those officers — Robin Heiden, Melody Gray and Tiffany Commagere — reported that Findlay had shared photos of them in bikinis or photos that he claimed showed one of them naked. Their harassment claims were substantiated by an Internal Affairs review, according to letters from Burbank and a city employment manager.
The three veteran officers say for months they lived in fear of retaliation. Their lawsuit has not yet been filed.
Findlay remained on duty for months after Burbank was officially notified of the claims, the women say. Furthermore, the women say Findlay held a position of authority over them, including being the deputy chief in charge of Internal Affairs — the very department that would investigate their claims.
Attorney Ed Brass, who represents the three women, said they were unaware of Becker's decision before Thursday's announcement.
"It comes as a surprise to them," he said. "This is not something that they had requested at any time. This is a personnel matter, and the mayor is doing what he deems to be appropriate. We had no input in this decision whatsoever."
Brass said he and his clients hope Thursday's actions, which he believes are a direct result of publicity surrounding the complaint, demonstrate a change in how Salt Lake City will deal with sexual harassment.
"The courage these three officers showed in coming forward and making this public has made a difference in how female officers will be treated in the future," he said.
Email: [email protected]