Former Columbia police Officer Rob Sanders cleared of third-degree assault charge

Tuesday, October 1, 2013 | 2:14 p.m. CDT; updated 7:49 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2013

COLUMBIA — Rob Sanders immediately turned his attention to reclaiming his job in the Columbia Police Department following the ruling Tuesday morning that he was not guilty of third-degree assault.

Sanders was certain that the charges would be dropped eventually.

"It's time-consuming, but all the evidence is in my corner," he said after the ruling. "You heard today, you heard everybody involved. I did what I was supposed to do."

Sanders, who was an officer in the Columbia Police Department for 18 years, was charged with the misdemeanor for shoving Kenneth Baker into the wall of his holding cell on Aug. 15, 2011. Baker had been arrested on two felony warrants.

Baker fell backward and hit his head on a wall, a video of the incident shows. He spent several days in a hospital after the incident, fractured a vertebra and permanently injured his back, according to previous Missourian reporting.

The video of the shove led to a public outcry and an internal affairs investigation. Sanders was dismissed from the department in September 2011.

Now, Sanders aims to get his job back, another step he is confident about. Sanders will petition the city, and a city personnel advisory board hearing will be held to determine his qualification for reinstatement.

Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Ahlbrand is also sure that Sanders will reclaim his job, "incredibly frustrated" that the incident erupted into a two-year criminal case.

"It was the most exhaustive internal affairs investigation on a minor misdemeanor incident I've seen in 30 years," Ahlbrand said. "But I am positive that he will be able to eventually get his job back."

Judge Carol England made the ruling on Sanders' acquittal after a day-and-a-half bench trial, which began Thursday.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Scott Stacey and Sanders' defense attorney, Scott Jansen, debated whether Sanders' use of force against Baker was reckless. But the attorneys agreed that in order to qualify as reckless, Sanders' actions had to be a gross deviation from the department's standards.

The attorneys had different interpretations of "gross deviation."

"He did not grossly deviate from the standard of care," Jansen said. "On the contrary, he acted precisely in accordance with that standard of care. Rob did what he was asked and expected to do by the Columbia Police Department."

The standard of care — as described by Chad Craig, a former Columbia police defense tactics instructor — is called the "plus one theory." It is intended to eliminate the need for additional injuries to both parties.

"In order to do so, you have to use a little more force than the resistance," Craig said. "Sometimes, officers must be the aggressor to maintain control."

In his cross-examinationof Craig, Stacey said the standard of care still doesn't allow officers to attack prisoners.

"If an officer physically punishes someone, that's an assault," he said.

Stacey said the court, not police, is responsible for punishing people.

Although he denied that Sanders punished or intended to punish Baker, Craig acknowledged that Sanders used strong force.

"It was somewhere between a push and a strike," Craig said.

Stacey said force should only be used if the resistor is an "imminent threat," which Baker did not appear to be while in the holding cell. Baker had been pepper-sprayedand was still "neutralized" by the effects, Stacey said.

In the video, Baker can be seen pacing back and forth and calls for help because the sink in the cell wasn't working and he wanted water to rinse his face.

But Jansen denied that Baker was still significantly subdued by the pepper spray while in the holding cell.

"Pepper spray is not some magic elixir that stops everything," he said. 

Furthermore, as Sanders testified in his own defense, he was uncertain about Baker's  state.

"It seems to be a roller coaster," Sanders said. "I needed to be cautious with handling this individual."

After argument and testimony from 10 witnesses, Judge Carol England found that Sanders' behavior was not reckless.

"Based on the video that existed, we believed the public deserved a trial," Special Prosecutor Mark Richardson said after the trial was concluded. He said the law that was applied was given fair consideration and that he accepted the judge's ruling.

Sanders' day in court was a long time coming. Nearly a year passed between the day the video of the incident was released and when Sanders was charged. Several changes in special prosecutors also postponed Sanders' trial.

Although he said he wished the wheels of justice had turned more quickly, Sanders said he was confident the process would eventually bring justice.

"As long as you're acting within the law and within your training, you'll be fine," he said after the ruling. "It will just take a while to get it sorted out."

The city paid Baker $250,000 to settle a civil lawsuit in December 2011 that arose from his injuries and medical bills.

Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton was unable to be reached regarding the reinstatement of Sanders into the police force.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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Richard Saunders October 1, 2013 | 5:33 p.m.

All this trial displays is that the real criminals ALWAYS look out for each other.

But hey, if this kind of brutality is what they want to be known for, who am I to argue with their methods of persuasion?

Thugs will be thugs, I guess...

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