The question of whether to reinstate former police officer Rob Sanders is in an advisory panel??s hands after nearly 14 hours of testimony Friday.
Columbia??s Personnel Advisory Board heard from almost everyone associated with Sanders?? firing from the police department??s internal affairs personnel to officers who worked with Sanders to police chief Ken Burton and Sanders himself. Sanders was fired after he tackled a suspect named Ken Baker in a city jail cell in August 2011, breaking one of Baker??s vertebrae. A judge ruled last month Sanders was not guilty of assault in the incident.
Sanders told the board Baker was extremely violent throughout the night he was arrested. He said Baker started pounding on the door to his holding cell while he was there. Sanders said this caused concern among officers who were present because all but two of the city??s holding cells have aluminum latches and locks rather than steel. The softer metal is much more susceptible to bending, and Sanders recounted calling in the fire department on several occasions to break into jail cells whose occupants had damaged the door so much it would not open.
Sanders said concerns over the cell and Baker??s continuing aggressive behavior led him to ask Baker to calm down or else he would have to be handcuffed to a ring on the cell??s floor. Department policy at the time gave officers the authority to do this. When Baker continued to threaten officers, Sanders entered the cell and pushed him. He said given the confines of the cell, he felt this was the best move he could make under the circumstances. Sanders said he did not expect Baker to fly across the cell but he had been trained to apply ??100 percent?? of the force he could apply when physical force became necessary.
??If I do one strike that I feel comfortable with and it totally incapacitates the subject, then there??s no need to have multiple strikes or multiple opportunities for either one of us to get hurt,?? he said.
Police chief Ken Burton said Baker??s conduct did not justify Sanders?? actions. He said Baker was safely locked in his cell and thus posed no physical threat to officers despite repeated verbal threats.
??If I??m going to use that as an excuse, that this guy is dangerous, why go in there??? he said. ??Or if I am going to go in there, let??s go in with a plan other than just shoving him up against the wall and hoping for the best.??
During the late afternoon and early evening, an internal investigation into Sanders came under scrutiny. Sgt. Jason Jones, who worked in the department??s Internal Affairs division at the time and wrote most of the report, recounted that he was asked to investigate three complaints: excessive force, failure to provide medical attention following the use of physical force, and abusive treatment of a prisoner. Jones said his investigation did not find enough evidence to support any of these charges. Burton said the investigation was tainted by personal loyalties to Sanders and said he has seen a number of similar cases of egregious officer misconduct which Internal Affairs tried to write off.
The board has 10 working days to recommend whether or not to reinstate Sanders. Once the board issues its report, City Manager Mike Matthes will have 30 days to decide whether to give Sanders his job back. Matthes' decision will be final.