In court filing, fired Columbia police officer Rob Sanders says he followed training

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | 3:25 p.m. CDT; updated 10:06 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 28, 2015

COLUMBIA — In his most recent court filing, former Columbia Police Officer Rob Sanders argued his use of force against a prisoner in August 2011 "exactly" reflected his training for the situation.

The reply memorandum, filed in Cole County Circuit Court in Sanders' bid to be reinstated to the Columbia Police Department, came three weeks after the city of Columbia released City Manager Mike Matthes' reasons for upholding Sanders' firing. The former officer and his attorney, Scott Jansen, claim Sanders' treatment of Kenneth Baker complied with training and that the city ordinance that addresses handling of prisoners is "unconstitutionally vague."

Sanders was fired in September 2011 after he shoved Baker into the wall of a holding cell. Baker suffered a fractured vertebra.

Although an internal affairs investigation cleared Sanders of wrongdoing, Police Chief Ken Burton fired him. City Manager Mike Matthes upheld the firing, and Sanders filed for judicial review of his dismissal.

Sanders was acquitted of a third-degree assault charge.

The filing argued the police department established procedures for using force, including specific instructions on dealing with prisoners banging on a cell door, as Baker was doing. It states that the former police officer followed the established directives when he entered Baker's cell. He claims that despite following procedure, he was fired partially because of the "vague and ambiguous" nature of the ordinance.

Calls to Matthes, Burton, Sanders' attorney and the city's attorney were not returned.

According to the ordinance, "Abusive or improper treatment of a client, prisoner, citizen or other individual in the community or on the city payroll" is "just cause for suspension or discharge."

The standard for what qualifies as "abusive or improper" treatment can be understood through common sense and is not "so unclear that (persons) of common intelligence must guess at its meaning," according to a brief filed earlier by the city. But because of the conflict between the police department's training and the city ordinance, the brief argued that a "reasonable officer" cannot be sure what constitutes improper treatment of a prisoner.

In the case of Baker, the brief said the prisoner "had a propensity to resist and assault officers." Baker was intoxicated and had to be pepper-sprayed after he fought with officers, according to previous Missourian reporting. Baker was being arrested for two outstanding felony warrants.

As Baker had resisted arrest initially and had started banging on the cell door, Jansen said in the filing that "force was expected and required" to cuff the prisoner to a ring in the floor. Sanders was "tasked with putting him on the ring," and it wasn't possible for him to subdue Baker any other way, as the city had argued, according to Sanders' filing.

Burton disagreed. In a previous brief filed by the city, Burton said Sanders' use of force was "retaliatory, unnecessary and unreasonable." Matthes agreed, outlining almost 30 points in his brief that supported Burton's assessment.

After Sanders shoved Baker into the wall, he turned to the other officers present and said, "Let's just say that (Baker) lost round two ... Yeah, he's gonna have to go to the hospital," according to the released brief that details Matthes' reasons for upholding the firing.

That statement has taken on two meanings. While both sides agree Sanders said Baker had lost "round two," the city cites it as evidence of malicious intent toward Baker by Sanders. Matthes' filing says the force used was in part retaliation for threats Baker made to the officers.

Sanders argued the comment was made sarcastically and under stress and that it has been taken as a "'smoking gun' of malice," used in part to fire Sanders after negative media attention to the incident.

The city manager's filing also cites as further evidence of Sanders' malicious intent in the fact that he hid in the corridor outside Baker's cell, waiting for him to bang on the cell again before entering the cell and shoving him.

Sanders served as a police officer for 17 1/2 years. During his career, Sanders was cited for sexual harassment, reckless driving and cursing at residents, among other violations.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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