DAVID ROSMAN: Criticism of Police Chief Ken Burton seems misplaced

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 | 1:49 p.m. CST; updated 5:24 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Columbia is not without controversy and the harsh reality of criticism. This time it is a move by some members of the Columbia Police Department to oust police Chief Ken Burton from his office.

Most of us know the story. Burton was hired as an "outsider," which some in and outside of the department were not comfortable with. Burton is, like me, an "outsider," brings little Columbia history and certainly little knowledge to an established entity. But he does bring experience.

He has made a number of changes, and change is always difficult regardless of the entity. New methods, new rules, new forms, all having to be learned and incorporated into the comfort of the "old ways," which were most likely the "new way" not that long before.

This "discomfort" usually leaves a few at odds with any new leader, system or owner. Burton and CPD are not immune.

Burton fired Officer Rob Sanders, an 18-year veteran of the department, for using excessive force. Sanders pushed Kenneth Baker, who was in a holding cell, into a cinderblock wall, causing what Baker is claiming to be significant injuries to his neck and back.

As reported in the Missourian on Sept. 21:

"At around 11:20 p.m., the tape shows a man restlessly pacing, covering his eyes with a paper towel and yelling, though his statements are barely audible on the tapes.

"(Chief) Burton said the man had been arrested on two outstanding felony warrants and was pepper-sprayed after getting into a 'pretty significant fight' with officers not shown on the tapes.

"At 11:37 p.m., officers can be seen suddenly entering the cell, and one is seen forcefully pushing the man from a standing position into a wall. A loud thud can be heard, and blood can be seen on that officer's forearms as he handcuffs the man."

Today, a group of officers and their supporters want Burton dismissed. Their stated reason is that Burton did not indicate that he was accused of using excessive force more than 30 years ago while working for the Dallas Police Department on his application for the Columbia top-cop job.

These same individuals are also upset that Burton fired Sanders.

They have organized themselves as "Chief Burton needs to Resign," a grassroots organization calling for his resignation or termination.

They also have a petition and claim to have more than 200 signatures, though the petition shows only 58.

Their opposition comes from an interesting source, Keep Columbia Free, which worked against the use of surveillance cameras in downtown Columbia.

They are joined, at least in spirit, by the Missouri Civil Liberties Association, which is not affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to Dan Viets, the Civil Liberties Association has not made an official statement concerning Burton but is allowing the Keep Columbia Free’s petition in support of the chief to circulate through their mailing list.

Their petition can be found at and lists more than 100 signatures.

Yet one incident has nothing to do with the other. Firing Sanders and refusing to let him buy his K-9 working partner seem to be the focus.

People learn from their experience and their understanding of a situation in which they find themselves entangled.

If Burton's action were based, at least in part, on his past experiences, good and bad, then Sander's dismissal appears justified.

Burton also had an advantage  — the CPD Internal Affairs investigated the incident, and decisions were made on more complete information than you or I have.

Yes, I have met and had conversations with the chief. Yes, he did talk to my class at Columbia College last year.

I am not privy to the chief’s job application to comment on the allegations against him, or to Sanders' personnel file. However, from what I have seen, read and heard, there appears to be no malice in Burton’s actions to fire Sanders.

I am throwing my support to Burton and will sign that petition. Our cops are good men and women, doing the best they can with limited resources and funding.

I believe Burton is and will continue to lead them well.

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. David’s newest book, A Christian Nation? is now available through

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mike mentor December 14, 2011 | 5:09 p.m.

Two people with opposite political leanings agree on this one. Hmm...

Hypotheticals for discussion;

Are the Sanders backers ready to put their money where their mouth is and pay for the eventual settlement we will have to pay to this guy that the officer assaulted?

If a guy attacks me for no reason and beats on me until the cops get there and get the guy handcuffed, can I then go and sucker punch the guy that attacked me after he has been cuffed and is no longer an imediate threat? Are the cops going to cheer me on or charge me with assault?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller December 14, 2011 | 8:47 p.m.

Excellent column Dave--well and thoughtfully written. I would be willing to wager that most if not all the "grassroots" members calling for Chief Burton's resignation/termination share a commonality--that of never having held a position of leadership wherein they had to assume responsibility for the consequences of a decision rendered. It is much easier to criticize than to create.

(Report Comment)
Justin Thomas December 16, 2011 | 1:23 p.m.

This appears to be more of a personal vendetta or an attack to support the union than a legitimate claim for the removal of the Chief. They really have their work cut out for them trying to convince people that they should feel sympathy for Sanders, or that somehow removing Burton would serve as justice for the firing of Sanders and his inability to get "his" dog from the department. Perhaps, in some way (I don't have all the facts either), Sanders could be considered collateral damage of the inappropriate behavior that has been happening in the Columbia Police Department over the years. But, they should give it up already.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin December 16, 2011 | 3:12 p.m.

Good story from David here.

I feel for all these officers -- I think cops have the toughest job in the world.

I'm also in no position to judge the conditions Officer Sanders faced when he shoved this guy, just that viewing it on the video was shocking, horrifying, and frightening.

Maybe it wasn't excessive force, but it looked like excessive force. Maybe it was fully called for because the guy presented an imminent threat, but what that threat was never becomes clear.

Given what it looked like, given the pressures Chief Burton is under to reduce any and all excessive force, appearances or otherwise, and given his own past experiences with issues of this sort, I cannot really see how he could have made any other decision BUT to fire Officer Sanders.

And I can't help but wonder how many hundreds of people would be calling for Burton's resignation or termination had he NOT fired Officer Sanders.

I'm not saying it was the right decision; I'm not saying I agree with it or disagree with it. I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough in this area to make those sorts of value judgments.

I'm only saying that the decision was inevitable.

Which is one of many reasons I say, "toughest job in the world."

(Report Comment)
mike mentor December 16, 2011 | 3:35 p.m.

Yes Mike!
Thanks to all of you serving no matter what you think about the chief!

(Report Comment)
David Rosman December 16, 2011 | 11:45 p.m.

Thank you all for the kind words.

Justin - I do not think that this is a "union thing" but a few who may or may not have legitimate gripes with the Chief.

One thing I do find interesting. I know that a few would rather not sign their name to these petitions but show support for their cause. As of 12/16 at 11:30 pm, six percent of the signers of the Keep Columbia Safe petition signed "Anonymous." For the "Burton Needs to Resign" petition - 14 percent. Just reporting.

I also received one direct e-mail from someone who did not sign his name, but did leave enough information that I know who he is. He is very upset with me for supporting our "para-military police state." If such a state would exist, he would not have been able to write his opinion.

The one person I have not heard from is "Canine Fano," the person leading the "Burton must Resign" charge.

I do hope this finds you all well and in great spirits.

(Report Comment)

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