COLUMBIA — Video footage of former Columbia Police officer Rob Sanders shoving a prisoner against the wall in a police holding cell was the focus of the first day of his trial in Boone County Circuit Court on Thursday.
The video was central to the argument over whether Sanders, charged with third-degree assault, used warranted force against the prisoner, Kenneth Baker. He was fired from the police department after an internal affairs investigation. Sanders was an 18-year veteran of the department.
His court trial began Thursday in the 13th Judicial Circuit of Boone County. There is no jury in a court trial. The judge — Associate Circuit Judge Carol England — will decide Sanders' case.
Baker, who was 38 at the time, suffered injuries to his back and head, according to testimony Thursday. Police were arresting him on two felony warrants Aug. 15, 2011, when a fight broke out between Baker and two police officers, Brandon Crites and Neal Sedgwick. Sedgwick pepper-sprayed Baker to subdue him.
Baker didn't ask to be taken to the hospital for treatment after he was sprayed. But Sanders hosed off his face in the police parking garage before taking him to a holding cell.
The video shows Baker shouting for help and banging on the door of the cell, asking for water and in distress from the spray. Sanders can be seen entering the cell, with two officers behind him, and shoving Baker against the wall so hard that he bounces off the wall and falls to the floor.
Special prosecutor Mark Richardson, from Cole County, didn't attempt to argue that Baker was compliant during his arrest. Instead, he argued that by the time Baker was pepper-sprayed and placed in the holding cell, he'd given up the fight.
"Mr. Baker remained calm throughout the incident," he said. "Sanders' attack was not reasonable to anyone ... Sanders was reckless."
Another prosecution witness, defense tactics specialist Kirk Davis of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, told England he had seen the videos and read the reports and saw Sanders' behavior as excessive.
"I can't see anything during that time that could be seen as a triggering event," Richardson said.
He said that police officers must escalate force "when appropriate, but also de-escalate force when appropriate."
Sanders' defense attorney Scott Jansen, however, asserted that even after he was jailed, Baker posed a danger to officers. He argued that the situations in which police make decisions are so fast, intense and fluid that they can become unintentionally harmful. His client, he said, didn't intend to hurt Baker as badly as he did.
In his cross-examination of Davis, Jansen said Sanders didn't behave recklessly and that his conduct had to be judged against what was customary for Columbia Police.
"If you're going to condemn the officer, you have to condemn the system first," he said.
Sanders didn't testify. Besides the family members and friends who'd come to support him, at least 10 current and former Columbia police officers sat in the audience.
England said the trial would reconvene on Tuesday.
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