Former police officer Rob Sanders was fired from the Columbia Police Department over seven years ago for using excessive force, but his lawsuit against the City of Columbia revealed that previous instances of misconduct also played a role in his firing.
The lawsuit requests that Sanders be reinstated to the police department. But on Thursday, during the second day of court proceedings, Police Chief Ken Burton said his reinstatement wouldn’t be in the best interest of Columbia.
Sanders was suspended four times during his time as an officer and racked up 13 disciplinary citations. Burton said that history showed Sanders wasn’t going to “function within the rules or the guidelines” of the police department.
In court Thursday, Sanders also provided his account of the incident that led to his firing. He explained what led him to push Kenneth Baker into the back wall of his cell, an act that caused a laceration on Baker’s head and fractured his vertebrae. Sanders was fired after a video of the incident went viral on YouTube in 2011.
Sanders decided to appeal his firing because, as his lawsuit argues, he used “objectively reasonable force.”
His original appeal was heard by the Personnel Advisory Board, which is made up of citizens appointed by the Columbia City Council. The board oversees personnel issues, including appeals of disciplinary actions. Two former board members said in court Thursday that they thought his firing was justified and called him “unworkable.” They also said his previous behavioral issues were a factor in their decision.
The police department’s Internal Affairs Unit also conducted its own investigation and found that the allegation of misconduct was "unfounded."
Most of the Thursday morning hearing was devoted to Sanders’ explanation of why he believed the force he used was reasonable.
Baker, who had been pepper-sprayed, had started pounding on the door and asking for water to rinse his eyes. The officers warned him to stop, but Baker continued. The officers then instructed him to sit by the back wall of the cell so they could handcuff him. Again, Baker did not comply.
Sanders then opened the door to the cell, pushed Baker down, and was followed by two officers who handcuffed him to a ring at the back of the cell.
Sanders said the police department had trained him to use force if an inmate didn’t comply with an order to sit at the back of the cell. In a situation like this, Sanders said, he was trained that one officer was to enter the cell and push the inmate back, after which two officers would handcuff them.
But Burton said that using force was not normal protocol. He also said that whether force is “objectively reasonable” depends on the actions of the inmate.
Additionally, Sanders pushed Baker with both arms, which Sanders confirmed is not a method he was trained to use.
Sanders said he assessed Baker and determined he was “dangerous” and “not to be trusted” for many reasons. Baker initially resisted arrest and restraining him took three physically-fit officers and pepper spray. Sanders also thought it possible that Baker was previously incarcerated. He cited Baker’s tattoos and his use of the slang, “boss,” saying that he had been trained to identify these characteristics.
During his cross-examination of Sanders, Ian Cooper, lawyer for the City of Columbia, asked Sanders whether Baker’s handcuffs would’ve been removed before taking him to the cell if he was violent.
This was correct, Sanders said.
Sander’s actions after he pushed Baker also were discussed in court Thursday.
After Baker was handcuffed inside the cell, Sanders noticed blood and found Baker bleeding. He called for medical assistance, which took about 12 minutes to arrive.
Burton said he thought Sanders was obliged to do more for Baker, although at the time, the police department’s policy only required Sanders to call for medical attention. Police officers are also not required to undergo first-aid training.
The case will resume at 9 a.m. Friday at the Boone County Courthouse.