COLUMBIA — A group calling itself "Chief Burton Needs to Resign" said Sunday that it is collecting signatures for a petition to ask Police Chief Ken Burton to step down.
The petition is the latest move in the battle between Burton’s supporters and those backing former officer Rob Sanders, whom Burton fired Sept. 21 for using excessive force against a prisoner in a holding cell. An internal affairs investigation cleared Sanders of any policy violations, including a failure to provide adequate medical care and mistreatment of a prisoner under city codes, but Burton overrode the findings.
The group, spearheaded by former law enforcement officer Doug Lane, is basing its complaints against Burton on Internet searches and open records it requested from the Dallas Police Department, where Burton served as an officer from July 1977 until he resigned Feb. 9, 1981.
"It turned into an avalanche of stuff that we kept finding of consistencies in his poor decision making," said Lane, who has not worked with the Columbia Police Department.
The records obtained by the group document then-officer Burton’s resignation from the department after an investigation into his use of excessive force prompted a complaint against him. One of Burton's supervisors, police Sgt. Graham E. Pierce, recommended that Burton be rehired, but police Capt. R.L. Schifelbein disagreed, writing that Burton had resigned before he could be disciplined based on the findings of the investigation.
Lane said the group, which now has about 15 or 20 members, is looking to gather at least 1,000 signatures from Nov. 28 until Jan. 1.
The group is planning to present the petition to City Council, City Manager Mike Matthes and Mayor Bob McDavid along with information the city might not have had about Burton when he was hired in February 2009, Lane said. The group has filed more records requests, which are still being processed, he said.
"We want them to have the full picture," Lane said. "We’re not trying to slander him. We are not trying to railroad him. All these things that we’re trying to present are factual."
Burton said Monday that his resignation from the Dallas Police Department "had nothing to do with" the use-of-force investigation. He said he’d been looking for a job outside law enforcement since early 1980 for personal reasons.
"I had a couple of job offers right at the same time," he said. "I didn’t have time to wait. I had to go. One had nothing to do with the other."
Burton said the incident that spurred the complaint was "a very violent situation" — a high-speed car chase lasting about 25 minutes in which Burton said he pursued a person thought to be involved in an attempted murder. Burton said he apprehended the person by himself and fought over the .44 Magnum handgun the person was carrying.
He said he saw the petition as a "desperation move" from Sanders’ supporters.
"They can’t explain the video (of Sanders in the holding cell), so they have to move the attention away from it," he said.
Lane said the petition was prompted by what the group calls Burton’s inconsistency in following department policies and not in "retribution" for Sanders’ firing or a "political move" to get Sanders rehired. He said the Sanders case was an example of such inconsistency and that he thought Burton should have changed policies the chief questioned before Sanders was fired.
"Chief Burton has left himself out on a limb by overriding his" internal affairs investigators, Lane said. "He can’t change (policies) as time goes on because it’s not fair to everybody. It’s hard enough to be a police officer as it is, but it’s harder to go out when the playbook keeps changing."
Lane said he has experience with law enforcement. He spent eight years in the Marine Corps and several more as a Boone County sheriff's deputy and police officer in several municipalities. He said he knows and has worked with several veteran Columbia police officers within the department who served under at least one chief before Burton and some whose terms date back to former police chief Ernie Barbee’s administration. Lane said those officers told him there was an "underlying discontent" within the department.
"There’s a huge gap between the chief and the men that he’s supposed to lead," Lane said. "There’s great dissatisfaction, from what I hear. The officers who work there are not pleased with the leadership they have, and they don’t believe (Burton) will stand behind the officers."
Burton said officers opposed to the changes being made within the department would have to adjust — and that he’s not alone in amending policies.
"This is not just Columbia, Mo. — this is the entire country," he said. "Officers really have to think about what it is they’re trying to accomplish with a lawful objective and using appropriate force only. The general public is demanding a change in the way the police use force."
Burton said he sees the Sanders case as one of the more visible examples of police conduct requiring action from him as chief.
"The vast majority of officers go out there every day and do the right thing. The ones that become very visible are ones like the Sanders case," he said. The public is "expecting department leadership to take a stand, and that's what I’m going to do.”
Mark Flakne of Keep Columbia Free, a local political action committee, said Monday that the "Chief Burton Needs to Resign" group along with the Columbia Police Officers Association and the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police, is working to "sully Chief Burton’s good name."
"The chief was hired to reform this department," Flakne said. "He was hired to clean up the mess that 20 years of bad leadership have created in this department."
Flakne said Sanders’ firing was the last straw for the "old guard" of officers in the ongoing debate over changes being made in the department. He said the petition is a "public relations ploy" that isn’t meaningful.
"It’s their way of putting the spotlight on the situation and trying to further hurt Chief Burton’s reputation," he said.
Lane said the group has other plans if the petition doesn’t get the results it wants.