Testimony heard as ousted police officer Rob Sanders seeks reinstatement

Friday, November 15, 2013 | 10:12 p.m. CST; updated 4:08 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 16, 2013

*CORRECTION: This story has been revised to correct the description of the ruling in Sanders' bench trial. He was found not guilty. 

COLUMBIA — A personnel advisory board will recommend to City Manager Mike Matthes whether Rob Sanders should be reinstated with the Columbia Police Department after two attorneys debated the issue at a hearing Friday.

The six appointed residents on the advisory board, who spent the day at the hearing, will consider how appropriate it was for Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton to terminate Sanders. They have 10 days to form an opinion and give Matthes their recommendation. Matthes then has 30 days to make a final decision about Sanders' reinstatement.

Sanders worked for the Police Department for 18 years before he was charged with third-degree assault and fired in 2011. A video that captured Sanders shoving prisoner Kenneth Baker in a holding cell led to a public outcry and an Internal Affairs investigation. *Sanders was found not guilty in a bench trial in October, and Sanders hopes to reclaim his job.

Whether Sanders' use of force was reasonable was the central debate of the day.

Deputy City Attorney Cavanaugh Noce argued that Baker was vulnerable when he was in the holding cell. Baker had been pepper-sprayed earlier, and he was still suffering the effects, Noce said. Also, Baker was both intoxicated and calm when Sanders shoved him, so the force was unnecessary, Noce said.

"Prisoners must be protected," Noce said.

Sanders' attorney Scott Jansen took a stance reminiscent of the one he had argued in the bench trial, saying the totality of the circumstances had to be taken into consideration. He explained the "vicious" fight it took to restrain and arrest Baker. Sanders perceived the prisoner as noncompliant and combative, so using force with him to prevent a likely ensuing fight was reasonable, Jansen said.

"He did what is routinely done and what is expected to be done," he said.

Noce's witnesses

Throughout the day, both attorneys brought forth several witnesses to testify.

Noce used his first witness, Columbia police Lt. Krista Shouse-Jones, to demonstrate why he thought Sanders' actions were out of line.

"If you were in that exact same situation and in those exact same circumstances, would you have done it that way?" he asked Shouse-Jones.

"Probably not," she said.

Noce also had Shouse-Jones review the Police Department policy for officer treatment of prisoners affected by pepper spray and the Police Department code of conduct in an attempt to highlight Sanders' violations.

In his cross-examination, Jansen told Shouse-Jones, "Just because you might do it different doesn't mean it's unreasonable."

Shouse-Jones agreed, saying that the Internal Affairs investigation, in which she had been involved, found Sanders' force reasonable. Internal Affairs had recommended that the allegation that Sanders used excessive force was unfounded. It also recommended that the other two allegations — Sanders' failure to provide medical treatment after shoving Baker and his abuse or improper treatment of a prisoner — were unfounded.

Burton testified next, explaining why his final decision to sustain the three allegations and terminate Sanders didn't reflect the Internal Affairs recommendations. The police chief called Sanders' use of force "unjustified, unreasonable and unnecessary."

Excessive force was not Burton's only reason for firing Sanders, however. Burton also cited failure to provide adequate medical treatment for Baker.

"I'm talking about treating someone like a basic human being," Burton said.

He said Sanders at least should have given Baker treatment to the extent of checking his breathing, getting him water and staying with him.

During Jansen's cross-examination of Burton, the attorney clarified the Police Department's accepted practice of using force to restrain prisoners. Burton refused to accept that Sanders' force was regular and reasonable.

"We do it all the time," Burton said about force. "We do it without bouncing people's heads off the wall."

Jansen's witnesses

Jansen brought in a slew of current and former Columbia police officers as his witnesses.

The first, Detective Kevin Kasper, described the violent two-minute fight he and another officer had endured when they initially arrested Baker. Kasper argued that Baker's combativeness justified Sanders' force. Neal Sedgwick, the other officer who arrested Baker, also emphasized the intensity of the fight.

"It was probably the most prolonged and violent fight I've ever been in," said Sedgwick, who has been a Columbia police officer for three years.

Sanders also attested to Baker's belligerence, having heard the fight over an open microphone and having seen the officers' slow recovery from the fight. Sanders said he saw Baker as a threat judging by his resistance, perceived experience in prison and physical build. Sanders said he thought Baker had spent time in prison because he called the officers "boss" and had tattoos that resembled prison tattoos.

"This guy was not to be messed with and not to be taken lightly," Sanders said. "He was not your average bear."

Further justifying the shove, Sanders said that officers are taught to apply 100 percent of their strength if they have been put in a situation that warrants force. This force also prevents possible further strikes to everyone involved, he said.

Addressing Sanders directly, the personnel advisory board challenged his decision to shove Baker.

"Your whole method was to de-escalate the situation," board Chairman Ron Jenks said.

Jenks asked Sanders why he didn't give Baker water and why he didn't use a different act of force.

"It was my judgment that that was not going to suffice," Sanders responded.

He also explained why other actions wouldn't have been as appropriate and repeated himself from earlier in the testimony, saying that he acted in accordance with the Police Department policies and procedures.

Several other current and former officers testified on behalf of Sanders throughout the evening.

The personnel advisory board's recommendation to Matthes will not be disclosed. Regardless of the recommendation, Matthes will make the final decision on Sanders' reinstatement.

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