DAVID ROSMAN: When disagreements in police department overflow, it's a problem

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | 8:15 a.m. CDT; updated 7:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I have been contemplating this column for a while now. There have been at least five false starts.

The problem started months ago when police officer Rob Sanders was fired by Police Chief Ken Burton for assaulting detainee Kenneth Baker in a holding cell. But this is not a commentary about Sanders' actions. It has to do with the Columbia Police Officers Association, which I support, and its conflict with Chief Burton, whom I also support.

This has nothing to do with the accusations floating around about Sanders' firing after investigations said he did not violate the "rules" of behavior for a Columbia police officer.

This is about perception, intent and supporting the local police. This is about how regardless of what you might hear from Keep Columbia Free, Missouri Civil Liberties Association and other citizen watch groups, not all cops are bad. Most, in fact, are some of the finest on the job.

This is about supporting Chief Burton and all of the good he has done for the department and the improved perception of the department by the citizens of this city. This is really saying that opening one's ears to listen to all of the evidence is more important than making accusations.

The problem with perception started with a video of Sanders pushing a man disabled by pepper spray into a wall with great force. The problem is that we have heard conflicting stories about Baker's injuries. The problem is that the citizens were presented with a 70-second video that does not show "everything."

The problem is how individuals perceived that video in the context it is presented. We see Baker in obvious distress, rubbing his eyes and bending over in pain. I have never been hit by pepper spray, but the word from those who have been is that it hurts. A lot.

Baker begins talking to someone off camera. Within two seconds, the viewer witnesses Sanders pushing Baker into the wall with enough force to knock him off his feet. Sanders and two other officers then subdue Baker, handcuff him to a floor restraint, then leave.

The resulting "he did; no HE did" very public disagreement between the association and Burton really deals with Sanders' firing over this incident. It deals with employees who are unhappy with the chief of police and with split public opinion.

It really does not matter if Sanders' or Burton's actions were justified. What does matter is the perception of the situation by the public and a yet unexplained dislike of Burton by some police officers, with others following because an important, unspoken but correct code of ethics in every military and paramilitary organization is, "Right or wrong, protect your buddy’s back." Cohesiveness is important when lives are at stake.

I believe this is much more a case of the citizens' perception of the Columbia Police Department. If the opposite had happened and Sanders was kept on the force, the outcry would have been Burton supporting apparent police brutality.

The minority and lower economic communities who, unfortunately, have the most general contact with the police, would be further alienated from the cops. If the police think that they are not getting cooperation from citizens now … imagine.

Neither you nor I know if Burton offered Sanders alternatives to firing that would have saved his pension and reputation. We do not know what transpired during that meeting or about Sanders' predisposition toward Burton. We do not know a lot about this other than what we have heard in short sound bites on the news and from groups that support each side.

From a "public-relations" position, I might have recommended that Sanders be severely disciplined — to let the public know that abuse of the uniform, real or perceived, is not tolerated within the department. Sanders would be the scapegoat regardless.

I did not talk to Chief Burton or the Columbia Officers Association about this column. I wanted to base my commentary on the same information that you have.

I do know that cops are underpaid, under-appreciated and understaffed. I know that making hard decisions is part of the senior manager's job, regardless of how popular it is with the work force. I know we all hate change.

However, when department disagreements get out of control and overflow into the streets, no one feels safe in Columbia.

David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics.

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John Schultz May 2, 2012 | 1:31 p.m.

David, I have never heard Keep Columbia Free or the Missouri Civil Liberties Association, and I'm a member of both, express that CPD officers as a whole are bad, so I'm not sure why you mention that in this piece. I believe that a vast majority of officers serving on CPD are honest, hardworking, decent folks and I think most KCF and MoCLA backers have the same feelings.

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt May 2, 2012 | 6:13 p.m.

All I know is the Columbia police department has a problem. I don't believe it is new. I do not know what the base of this problem is but I do know sooner or later someone has to fix it else it will only get worse. So far all I've heard is a bunch of he said, she said.

(Report Comment)
Donald Warren May 2, 2012 | 8:00 p.m.

Mr. Rosman,

I would have to agree with John. I have never heard Keep Columbia Free or the Missouri Civil Liberties Association say anything that has even resembled that, and like John I am a member of both. You also know that one of the issues that I work on personally is to bring police officers and the community together, to bridge the gap that has formed between these two groups. Because I know that most of our police are good people, and most of the citizens of Columbia are good people too.

I have to say that as you are someone I respect I was shocked to read this.

Donald Warren

(Report Comment)
Andrew Reynolds May 2, 2012 | 9:21 p.m.

"a yet unexplained dislike of Burton by some police officers"

In the past week didn't the review board just list a number of reasons why officers aren't happy with Burton?

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller May 3, 2012 | 12:18 p.m.

A good and fair appraisal David.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Akins May 4, 2012 | 1:12 a.m.

I'm with John and Donnie on this.

For example: How you could say KCF thinks all cops are "bad" when they have taken it upon themselves to circulate a petition supporting the chief. Is the Chief not a "cop"?

I know you didn't mention CFJ by name, but(and correct me if I'm wrong) when you said "other citizen watch groups," it felt partially directed at us.

I will tell you my biggest issue here; I regularly attend/film community meetings that encourage dialogue between citizens and members of the police department, including the Bias-Free Coalition mixer last Friday where Chief Burton, Ashley Cuttle(CPOA Executive Director), members of CFJ, members of KCF, members of MOCLA, and members of other groups were all present.

There were no major issues(maybe a little tension between Cuttle and Burton, but that is to be expected) and we were greeted and had very positive encounters with many of the officers that attended.

However, someone who was not in attendance was...You.

In addition to that one, I've attended at least 2 others similar meetings within the last week and a half and will be attending the police department's May 12th community event in Douglass Park(which I was personally invited to by a member of the department).

"The problem is that the citizens were presented with a 70-second video that does not show 'everything.'"

Exactly; which is the same reason I believe your perspective would be more accurate if you participated in more of these meetings and community events.(BTW, I'd be happy to make you a copy of the entire footage from the station's security cameras if you would like or you can just Sunshine it)

"I did not talk to Chief Burton or the Columbia Officers Association about this column."

I really wish you had. I think you would have figured out that situation is a little different that it may appear from your current perspective, in terms of how these groups all interact with each other.

(Report Comment)
Matthew Akins May 4, 2012 | 1:14 a.m.

I'm not trying to attack you, but even if this was in no way directed at CFJ, you have to understand my perspective on this.

Mike Martin wrote an interesting piece on us following the release of one of our videos. While the video did present footage/commentary that may have made some members of CPD look questionable, it also presented footage/commentary that showed others in a positive light. When the article came out, it was irritating that in portrayed me in somewhat of a negative light...

But to be honest, it was infuriating that it nearly destroyed our relationship with the Public Relations Unit, which we had been working for more than 6 months trying to cultivate.

Operating on a principal of transparency, Jill Schlude (that unit's sergeant) forwarded us the email she had sent to Martin and it became clear he had selectively chosen quotes to turn a detailed and mostly well rounded response (there were still a few things she said that I took issue with, but that's life) into something that came off as almost hostile.

The consensus among the people from KCF/MOCLA that I've talked to is that this misrepresentation could have similar effects on relationships they've built.

It is the duty of those who hold the power of the press to use it responsibly(I know some will probably feel that me saying this is like the pot calling the kettle black; if this is your opinion your welcome to it), but creating division among a group of people who are trying to work together for the betterment of the community will not win you many friends.

Reading this article, I'm guessing your intent was in fact the opposite(to unite the community to stand behind and feel invested in OUR police force), but throwing groups that fight this fight everyday under the bus behind false pretenses is not going to accomplish this.

Matthew Akins
Citizens For Justice

PS. Long time no see; Straight Talk was the last time, if I'm remembering correctly. Hope to see you in Douglass Park on the 12th if you have time to stop by.

(Report Comment)

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