City, former police officer differ in account of Sanders' firing

Monday, February 24, 2014 | 4:52 p.m. CST; updated 9:48 p.m. CST, Monday, February 24, 2014

COLUMBIA — In a filing in Cole County Circuit Court, the city of Columbia challenged the validity of former Columbia Police Officer Rob Sanders' allegations that he was fired unjustly and without sufficient cause.

Sanders was fired in September 2011 by Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton after an internal affairs investigation into an assault on a prisoner in a holding cell one month earlier. In a video from inside the holding cell, Sanders could be seen shoving the prisoner, Kenneth Baker, against the wall. Baker suffered injuries to his head and back. 

Although the internal affairs review of the incident found that Sanders didn't violate department policy, Burton fired him. Sanders was acquitted in October on a charge of third-degree assault stemming from the incident.

Sanders' petition claims he was fired unilaterally by Burton, and that City Manager Mike Matthes upheld the firing despite testimony at a personnel advisory board hearing that showed Sanders acted within Columbia Police protocol. 

The Jan. 24 filing also said Sanders and his attorneys were not provided with a copy of the personnel advisory board findings.

The city responded that Sanders' petition, submitted by his attorney, Scott Jansen, did not provide the whole story and, in some instances, asserts errors of fact. The phrase "do not constitute a complete and accurate description of the events referenced" appears 11 times in the 20-paragraph rebuttal to Sanders' claim, including in the city's response to the allegation that Burton's decision to fire Sanders was unsupported by the facts in the case.  

The city also denied allegations that Matthes' decision to uphold the firing contradicted the findings in the personnel advisory board hearing, that Sanders' use of force was warranted, as his attorney argued, and that the firing violated Sanders' 14th Amendment right of due process.

The city does admit that neither Sanders nor his attorney were provided with a copy of the personnel advisory board findings but notes those findings will be submitted to the court as part of this process.

Cole County Judge Patricia Joyce has not decided whether Sanders' personnel record will remain closed to public scrutiny during the judicial review, as he has requested. Likewise, the city has not yet filed its argument to open the personnel record in the case.

Sanders and his attorney will have an opportunity to submit a brief of their argument before verbal arguments are made.

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