City Council votes against selling Fano to fired Columbia police officer

Monday, October 17, 2011 | 11:59 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Former Columbia police officer Rob Sanders won't be allowed to buy Fano, the dog he patrolled with. But after the council voted on the matter, the former officer's wife, Amy Sanders, might have convinced the council to reconsider its decision.

After hearing her speak, Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl said it would be an ongoing issue.

City Manager Mike Matthes recommended against selling the dog, and Mayor Bob McDavid moved to support that recommendation. Only one council member — Helen Anthony of the Fifth Ward — was opposed.

Matthes said his recommendation came down to three points:

  • Fano is still young and isn't done working yet.
  • As a police dog, Fano is aggressive. "I believe Fano is capable of harm," Matthes said.
  • Sanders' termination from Columbia Police Department is still under discussion as a personnel issue. "I can't separate the ongoing personnel action from this request," Matthes said.

Sanders was fired in September after an internal affairs investigation into his use of force against a prisoner in a holding cell.

Anthony wanted to "readdress the issue" after all personnel matters within the police department had been settled.

Amy Sanders, his wife, asked for "more contact and more thought about it, and a redirection on (the) ruling."

She presented a report to the council, based on facts she had gotten from people who train police dogs. She said the handlers she spoke with said aggression wasn't something trainers look for, and she held to the argument that Fano was not aggressive.

Police Chief Ken Burton had said previously that since Fano has been trained to be aggressive, the dog could be a liability to the city. Based on this, Matthes made his initial recommendation against selling the dog in a memo Thursday to the City Council.

At the Oct. 3 City Council meeting, Amy Sanders pleaded with the council to let her and her husband buy the dog. Janna Tarbox, a friend of the family, also spoke to the council that night on behalf of "Canine Fano" supporters who had come together on Facebook.

That liability was Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl's main concern, but he thought he had a solution that would allow the Sanderses to have the dog but also protect the city. He proposed a $1 million liability policy, which the Sanderses would pay for in yearly increments of $1,500, or maybe less. That way, if the dog were to hurt someone, the city would not be financially responsible, he said.

Kespohl also suggested having the dog neutered. "I think it would make the dog a little less aggressive," he said.

The council backed the city manager. First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt referred back to what Amy Sanders had said at the Oct. 3 meeting.

"She was reaching me when she was talking about the dog," he said. Schmidt said he wasn't OK when she started "to claim her husband's innocence, to bash the city, to bash the police department."

"We're asked to be compassionate about the dog," he said. "Well, where was the compassion in the video?" He was referring to a video of Sanders in the incident leading up to his firing.

He also connected Sanders' firing with the overall changes happening in the police department, citing Burton's stance that "we are not going to tolerate this behavior in the police department," Schmidt said.

He said he's seen too many people run when they see a policeman, and he hopes for further acknowledgement that there is a problem.

"There's a reason why there's guys like Matt Akins running around with cameras," he said.

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Robin Nuttall October 18, 2011 | 10:35 a.m.

I actually think Fano should remain with the police department. However I very strongly doubt Fano is an aggressive dog,and to characterize him as such demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about police K9s and their work.

"Aggressive dog" implies that Fano is dangerous and unstable, perhaps likely to bite without provocation. Police K9 and Schutzhund training is NOT for aggressive, unstable dogs. Good Police K9s and Schutzhund dogs are extremely stable in temperament. I have met many, and they range from "don't care you're on the planet," to totally friendly goofballs. But never, ever unstable and aggressive. A stable, outgoing, confident temperament is absolutely essential in any dog trained to do bitework or protection. Unstable dogs are not controllable dogs, and as such have no place whatsoever in any K9 program.

Just because a dog is taught to bite in controlled situations does not mean that dog is aggressive. In fact, these dogs must ONLY bite on a specific command and must let go on a voice command as well. They undergo intensive obedience training on top of their protection training to increase the dog/handler bond and ensure that they are always compliant to their handler's will. Trust me, a dog that will let go instantly on voice command in a highly energized situation is a dog that is not in any way aggressive.

Sorry, but I just can't help correcting some of these gross misunderstandings of how protection and police dogs work. Fano is an asset to our Department and should be retained by the Department. But he is not an aggressive dog (and if he really was an aggressive dog, neutering would not fix it...)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 18, 2011 | 11:06 a.m.

Robin: There are many pieces of this puzzle that have not been discussed for public least to my knowledge. Perhaps I just missed the discussion.......

For example, can Fano relate to another police handler to the same extent as to Officer Sanders? Will he be the same dog, or will he be.....different...and not quite as reliable? If not, can he be placed with a home and will he behave safely?

If Fano can be placed with another handler to the benefit of the city and its citizens, I'm all for it. After all, his training was expensive and his talents have been an asset to us. I don't know enough about this kind of dog to assess the direction of his fate. Any dog experts out there willing to expound??????

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall October 18, 2011 | 11:57 a.m.

@Michael, I would say that there is a very excellent chance that Fano can be placed successfully with another handler, just as he could be safe in a home. (I do not know Fano, I am just giving my perspective as someone who has been a dog trainer for a lot of years).

Police K9s are highly trained animals. Most are actually very social. Dogs, in general, want badly to bond with owners. As any owner of a dog who has been rescued or placed from a Humane Society can tell you, dogs are quite capable of forming new bonds with a new family, and very strong ones at that. While I'm sure there will be a transition period as Fano and his new handler get used to each other, I would be pretty shocked if a pairing failed, and if it did I would be far more likely to blame the human side of the partnership rather than the canine.

Keep in mind as well that it's pretty common in schutzhund circles to import young started dogs from Europe that are 18-24 months old. These dogs have extensive training foundations from other people yet are able to bond with their new owners and excel in work here.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Akins October 18, 2011 | 2:54 p.m.

I would like to see what comes from the personnel appeal. If the officer is found to be liable for his actions and it is found his firing was founded, I have a hard to seeing how the city could allow the purchase for a couple of reasons.

1. The city is open to being sued for this. Many people have stated, and the CPOA(police union)'s Executive Director, Ashley Cuttle, even said that the attorneys they contacted stated that the City would face no liability for this, but as the CPOA's own hired attorney said in May "Under our system, anybody can sue anybody for anything"(

Even if the suit was unsuccessful, the time, money, and energy that would be consumed in a potential suit could cost the city a lot. All it would take is for a person to get bit who didn't feel like the Sanders' had enough money to appease them.

The insurance argument presented by Kespohl was shut down in my eyes when Mayor McDavid pointed out that city would have to put an arbitrator in charge of making sure the insurance plan was regularly paid and remained intact.

2. The city is saying the dog bit another officer and Amy Sanders is disputing that claim. The outcome of that also has a great bearing on this case.

3. I also do feel that if the officer behaved in a negative manner as it would seem from the holding room cell video, he doesn't really have a leg to stand on as far as arguing with the organization that fired him, over his right to purchase property from them. I understand the dog is more than that to them, and not to sound cold, but first and foremost the dog is a tool paid for by the tax payers for the purpose of fighting crime.

That being said, my mother, Rochelle Sidie, made a good point. Departments assigning dogs to a specific officer who the dog will live with for it's life, almost like a family member, presents a problem when it comes to Officers who, for one reason or another, have to leave the department. Will those officers be treated more leniently when it comes to termination decisions, because of the possibility of adverse predicaments like this one and the fear that no matter which direction the city decides to go with this, they are being threatened by financial ramifications.

A policy should be put in place to avoid situations like this in the future.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Akins October 18, 2011 | 10:13 p.m.

Also, thank you to Fred Schmidt for mentioning us and KELLIE KOTRABA/the Missourian Staff for including us in the article. Here is the footage of Schmidt addressing the issue and the council voting.

(Report Comment)
Kellie Kotraba October 19, 2011 | 8:10 a.m.

@Matt Akins,

You're welcome — the way I see it, and the way I've been trained here, is that it's important to link individual issues to a larger context. Thank you for sharing the video of the council discussion and vote — what a great resource.

Kellie Kotraba
Reporter, Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Matthew Akins October 28, 2011 | 12:43 p.m.


Sorry for the late response, just saw yours.

That is a great way to look at things/write articles and I'm happy to hear that this is how, not only you see it, but the Missourian teaches it.

Keep up the great work and we will continue to our part as well!


(Report Comment)

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