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A man of few words
Portland Police Chief Tim Burton promises to be a quiet force for change
BY SARA DONNELLY


At the city-council meeting that night, dozens of people took the podium to question the nomination of local boy Burton over runner-up Anthony Holloway, an African-American police captain from Clearwater, Florida, who had been endorsed by one of Portland’s police unions. The room was packed to overflowing with television and print reporters, TV cameras, police officers in and out of uniform, council groupies, NAACP and other minority-group representatives, city and state officials, interested citizens, and Burton himself, who sat in the front row, his wife to his right, his mother and son behind him.

"We are asking for the [city council] to do a pause and review," said Reverend Kenneth Lewis, Vice President of the Portland NAACP, at the November meeting. "Tim Burton is a fine man, we believe that he is a great candidate, but we do not believe that he is the best candidate."

In a similar situation, we’d have expected some grandstanding from Burton’s fiery predecessor, Mike Chitwood. But Burton offered nothing in his own defense. When the council asked him for comment, Burton rose from his seat, and said smoothly, "No, not at this time. I’d like to wait until the council votes first."

In both appearance and demeanor, Portland’s new police chief is the anti-Mike Chitwood. While former chief Chitwood, who served as the city’s top cop from 1998 to August 2005, was famous for being camera-loving, brash, and outspoken (earning him the nickname "Media Mike"), Chief Burton says only as many words as are necessary. Sometimes he doesn’t speak at all.

Burton, who worked as Chitwood’s right-hand man up until the latter’s departure this summer, has the type of low, whispery voice that the former chief’s loud Philly brogue could mow right over.

Burton’s characteristic secrecy makes it particularly ironic that his ascension to the chief’s job in Maine’s largest city set off a political tidal wave in which the merits and efficacy of the city’s affirmative-action policy were publicly debated for the first time in decades.

What would have been a gold-mine sound-bite opportunity for Media Mike is, for Burton, exactly the kind of spotlight scenario he would probably like to avoid. While the new chief says he agrees concerns about affirmative action need to be addressed, he also says the week prior to the meeting was a particularly anxious one for him because of the debate about his nomination over a minority candidate’s. And the three-hour public-comment session that preceded his appointment, on November 7, left him exhausted. After he ultimately was appointed by the council 8-1, Burton didn’t go out for a drink or to a party to celebrate. Instead, he shook some hands, conducted a few brief interviews, climbed into his car with his family, drove home, and went to bed. The next morning, he arrived at work to find his voice-mail box filled with more than 40 messages from people who do business with the police department, local officials, and citizens calling to introduce themselves and to congratulate him.

Tim Burton, overnight, has become one of the most prominent public figures in the city.

THE GUY BEHIND THE SCENES

Portland Police Captain Joe Loughlin met Tim Burton during Burton’s first year on the force in 1982. Burton was 22, Loughlin 27. They were patrol partners.

"I can recall how even back then he was just a guy with dignity and strong values and beliefs," says Loughlin. "We’d be in a very volatile situation where emotions were running high, and people are talking and screaming, and Tim would come in and speak succinctly and clearly. I don’t know; he had a calming effect on people."

When Mike Chitwood resigned to take a job as police chief of Upper Darby, Pennsylvania in August, Burton was promoted from Portland’s deputy chief to its interim chief. That was the latest in a long line of promotions through the Portland PD ranks from those early days on patrol. During his 23-year tenure on the force, Burton has served as a detective specializing in child-abuse cases, a sergeant supervising patrol, a lieutenant managing community policing, a leader of the "special reaction team" (which responds to hostage calls and other high-risk emergency situations), a manager of the department’s internal computer system, and a lieutenant overseeing the entire detective division.

But Burton, despite being clearly qualified for the chief’s position, wasn’t favored by the officers’ union, the Police Benevolent Association. The Portland chapter of the NAACP announced its opposition to him, citing a nomination process they claim did not properly consider the black candidate, Anthony Holloway, of Florida. The buzz around the department was that Burton, who implemented changes recommended after a US Department of Justice review of the PPD which ended in 2004, wouldn’t bring with him the kind of new energy that could help soothe the sting of the negative publicity. Burton’s reserve, which had long been his strength as a cop, suddenly became his handicap.

"Recently, some of the younger officers look at him in the vein of sort of enigmatic," says Loughlin. "They don’t know him. He’s so quiet. But when I tell them, ‘Look at the carpeting that you’re standing on, and the walls here, all the new equipment we have here, it’s all his thinking.’ Chitwood was the out-front kind of guy, but Tim was the guy behind the scenes."

The chief has worked happily behind the scenes for most of his life. Born in 1959 to working-class Irish-American parents, Rodney and Josephine Burton, Tim Burton was the eldest of two children. His father was originally from Alabama, while his mother’s family, the Greelys, have lived in Portland for too many generations for Josephine Burton to count. Burton’s father was an auto mechanic and clerk who worked in the Firestone Stores in Portland, selling car parts. His mother worked as a telephone operator and later as an administrator at the Portland Fire Department. According to Gary Hoyt, a teacher at Cheverus High School who taught both Tim and his younger brother, David, Josephine was a strong presence in the boys’ lives at Cheverus, while Hoyt rarely saw their father.

"Their mother was very determined that her children would always do it the right way," Hoyt says.

"[Josephine] worked hard for those boys," he says. "She put them both through Cheverus, put David through Bowdoin College. She was very involved."

Tim Burton was sociable but independent, even as a child. His family lived in a handful of Portland apartments while he was growing up, but Burton says he spent most of his childhood on Thomas Street, in the West End.

"Tim had his own agenda," says Kevin Cloutier, a former neighborhood friend and Cheverus classmate. "A lot of times, when we would all get together after school, he’d take the bus home and either do homework or read."

 

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Issue Date: November 25 - December 1, 2005
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