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.