Personnel file shows former police officer Rob Sanders had history of disciplinary action

Friday, August 8, 2014 | 9:42 p.m. CDT; updated 10:46 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 27, 2014

*This article has been updated to clarify which file Rob Sanders wanted closed.

COLUMBIA — Information from Rob Sanders’ personnel file, made public Friday, records a history of 13 disciplinary actions — including four suspensions — during his 17 years with the Columbia Police Department.

The actions took place between 1994 and 2009. They include complaints against the former police officer by co-workers and citizens, as well as reprimands for causing traffic accidents, failure to follow certain procedures and unwillingness to assist a victim who requested help.

The former police officer is seeking to reverse his termination from the force. Sanders was fired in September 2011 after he shoved a prisoner into the wall of a holding cell, injuring the man’s back and head.

After assault charges were filed, Police Chief Ken Burton dismissed Sanders, who was later cleared of the charges in a bench trial. City Manager Mike Matthes upheld the termination, whereupon Sanders filed for judicial review of the decision.

He tried to keep the references to prior disciplinary actions in the city manager's summary of his personnel file* closed, but the motion was denied. Matthes' decision was submitted Friday as part of a court brief by John Landwehr, the city’s attorney in the case.

Among the disciplinary actions cited in the file are ones tied to these incidents:

  • Sanders was reprimanded for sexual harassment of a co-worker in March 1994, three months after he was hired.
  • He was admonished in June 1995 for forcibly detaining a family in a hotel lobby “without any reason to believe that these subjects had been involved in criminal activity.”
  • In December 1995, he was disciplined after two traffic accidents where he was judged at fault. In one, he lost control of his vehicle after making a U-turn. In the second, his driving was described as unsafe when he tried to avoid colliding with another car at an intersection.
  • Another reckless driving incident was cited in February 2008, when an investigation revealed he drove “almost 3 1/2 miles at speeds exceeding 100 mph without emergency equipment.” He received an eight-hour unpaid suspension.
  • Ten months later, he was removed from his position as a department driving instructor.
  • In April 2004, he was reprimanded for cursing residents on a walking trail for not leashing their dogs.
  • In July 2009, he was suspended for a week without pay for failing to help a victim of vandalism who asked for personal assistance from an officer.

Other incidents include search of a vehicle without a warrant; failure to follow proper evidence handling procedures (one-day unpaid suspension); failure to search a detainee for weapons before placement in a holding cell (two-day unpaid suspension); and pursuit of a vehicle on the basis of a seat-belt violation, which is against regulations.

The written reprimand after the seat-belt incident, which occurred in April 1997, noted: “A continual display of poor judgment in the manner in which you conduct your work, can have very serious ramifications and does not reflect favorably upon yourself, the Columbia Police Department or the City of Columbia.”

In an interview with the Columbia Tribune in May, Sanders acknowledged that he had reprimands on his record before 2011 but said none were for use of force.

In January, his attorney, Scott Jansen, filed a motion to keep the personnel record sealed, and said, “I don’t think my client has to reveal his personnel file to the world in order to get judicial review on his termination.”

Efforts to reach Sanders’ attorney on Friday were unsuccessful.

Sanders has maintained that he was fired without cause by Burton and that the move was wrongly upheld by Matthes.

The pivotal incident in the case involved Kenneth Baker, who was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant for child non-support on Aug. 15, 2011. At the time he was visibly intoxicated and resisted arrest.

Sanders subsequently took control of the situation, and a video of their interaction was widely dispersed.

Landwehr’s brief Friday includes a transcript of the city manager’s findings that led to Matthes’ assessment in December 2013 that Sanders should not get his job back.

In his review of the incident, Matthes pointed to findings that Sanders’ force was "unreasonable," "unnecessary" and "retaliatory." The document also listed the ways in which Sanders' treatment of the prisoner could be seen as "abusive and improper."

The report noted that the prisoner was not resisting the officers, trying to escape or threatening anyone. He was intoxicated without a weapon, and he was confined to a locked holding cell with three law enforcement officers present, all physically fit.

When Baker asked for water, Sanders offered him toilet water because the sink was broken. This caused the prisoner to become agitated, yell and slap the door to his cell.

After telling Baker to stop hitting the door, Sanders and two officers hid in the hallway outside the locked cell to wait for Baker to hit the door again.

According to the document, “Sanders entered the holding cell and violently shoved Baker before restraining Baker on the ring in the cell.

"The force of the shove by Sanders is so great, it caused Baker’s feet to leave the ground as Baker’s body was launched backwards into the concrete block wall in the back of the cell.”

Sanders then handcuffed Baker to the floor and left him alone, once for 12 minutes while he was bleeding. Baker was later taken to the hospital for treatment of his injuries.

After noting that a Personnel Advisory Board had decided that Burton acted within his authority to dismiss Sanders, Matthes determined that evidence of Sanders' use of unreasonable force and abusive treatment of a prisoner supported the termination.

In December 2011, the city of Columbia agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a civil lawsuit Baker pursued after the incident.

Sanders and his attorney have argued that an Internal Affairs investigation in 2011 sided with the officer. “An exhaustive Internal Affairs investigation concluded that Officer Sanders had not used excessive force, had provided the required medical attention and had not abused or improperly treated the prisoner.”

Jansen filed a brief with the court on July 7 to support the reversal of Sanders’ termination in the judicial review. He said the termination was “arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and an abuse of discretion.”

“All of the evidence supported only one legitimate conclusion: Sanders was following the rules of the Columbia Police Department when he entered Baker’s cell to handcuff him to the ring, and he was following the rules when he used force to do it.

“That force was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances, and it was not reasonably likely that Baker was going to fly backwards the way he did.

“The Chief himself admitted as much, and so it is clear that the justification for termination is based entirely on hindsight.”

Sanders’ attorney will be able to submit a response to the brief Landwehr filed Friday.

The documents can be viewed below: 

City of Columbia brief in Rob Sanders case


Exhibit A in Rob Sanders case


Rob Sanders Plaintiff Document

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Michael Grinfeld August 9, 2014 | 11:51 a.m.

So, now we know why Sanders was so protective of his personnel file. It reveals the truth of his performance, and seems to substantiate the notion that he should have been fired long ago. There's nothing worse than a police officer who thinks he can get away with anything.

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