Editor's note: This letter was originally sent to Mayor Bob McDavid.
I write to you today to offer the opinion of a retired military officer and citizen, who has been a student of leadership throughout the last four decades; who served in both a peacetime military and an Army at war. From fire team to a senior staff officer at the Pentagon, I have learned much about people, procedures and processes, sometimes under some very undesirably harsh situations. I consider it an honor to have served my country and to proudly claim that I was fortunate to learn from some of America’s best and brightest.
That said, I feel compelled to comment on the latest chapter in the saga of former Columbia Police Officer Mr. Rob Sanders; his relationship with the City of Columbia and Columbia’s Chief of Police, Mr. Ken Burton. I know neither Sanders nor Burton, and I am not now or have ever been associated with the Columbia Police Department, its union or any law enforcement agency in Missouri. I am just a citizen who is passionate about our fair city and am concerned about the path we seem to be headed down as a result of this particular situation.
As Mr. Henry Waters opined in his Oct. 3 "Tribune’s View" column, “(a) Callaway County circuit judge acquitted former Columbia police Officer Rob Sanders of third-degree assault for shoving a detainee in a holding cell, an action widely distributed on video and criticized as being excessively harsh. Sanders was supported by the Columbia Police Officers Association and the police union and was cleared by internal department investigators, but police Chief Ken Burton suspended and later fired him.” And continued, “one "can understand how the judge could decide Sanders' action did not constitute criminal assault, but that does not mean he is entitled to reinstatement on the police force.”
Respectfully speaking, but it does, Sir. I am no apologist for Mr. Sanders, but when leaders (such as Mr. Burton) over-ride an internal investigation result, which clears an individual of wrong-doing, choose to fire him anyway, file criminal charges against that same individual nearly a year later, but when the alleged wrong-doer is legally acquitted from those charges — all at great costs to taxpayers — then any support should be in an effort to re-hire him. Anything else constitutes a gross disregard for the very judicial system that any police officer is sworn to protect.
Mr. Waters, one cannot understand how an impartial criminal court judge could acquit an individual of a crime and then expect the defendant to remain punished. That’s not how our legal system works, and if there is any publicly paid official that should honor – no — insist upon it – it should be the chief of police. Yes sir, we should very well hold our law enforcement officers to a higher standard than the average citizen, but we cannot presume to disregard a legal finding from the courts no matter the defendant. I would hope most, if not all Columbia residents, would not want anyone to receive any partiality in a court of law – good or bad — especially a cop. Therefore, former officer Sanders has every right to be considered for re-employment and then re-employed as an officer for the Columbia Police Department. The question is, will the chief of police act in accordance of a true leader, with character and integrity, and make his wrong a right.
Leaders have to make tough decisions every day. It’s why we used to say in the Army, “that’s why we get the big bucks.” But when your decisions are overturned by a legitimate higher authority, then you must then admit your mistake and make it right. If you don’t, then you’re not a leader. You’re a bureaucrat, and that’s not what a chief of police should be. If the City of Columbia wants its police to be administratively managed, I’m sure the city manager is quite capable of doing that job. But when dealing with life and death decisions every day; where not just police but innocent persons are in danger, you want (you need) a police leader who will inspire and motivate, establish and enforce standards, make decisions without regard to external pressures, admit wrong-doing when it happens and then make it right. Lastly, you need a chief of police who puts his department’s needs before his own. If unwilling or unable to do any of these, then you are not fit to lead. There are many great police officers in this city, I believe. But not all of them are fit to be the chief.
Maybe Mr. Burton will demonstrate his fitness to lead Columbia’s Police Department in the next days leading up to the rehiring of Mr. Sanders. Maybe he will not. If he doesn’t re-hire Mr. Sanders, then perhaps it is time to find a new chief of police who meets the standards of leadership befitting Columbia. We sure could use it.
Mike Fayette is a Columbia resident.