How police officers should handle unruly prisoners and how they should apply physical force are two major points likely to influence a Columbia panel's decision on whether to reinstate a fired police officer.
Rob Sanders was fired from the Columbia Police Department after an August 15, 2011 incident in which he pushed Ken Baker across his jail cell, fracturing one of Baker's vertebrae. In addition, Sanders was charged with assault and the city faced a lawsuit. The city settled the lawsuit that December and Sanders was acquitted of assault charges last month.
On Friday, Sanders testified before Columbia's Personnel Advisory Board in a bid to get his job back. Much of the discussion centered around handling unruly prisoners and, if an officer decides physical force is necessary, how force should be applied. Sanders told the board he felt Baker had to be restrained because he was pounding on his jail cell door. He said all but two of the city's jail cells have aluminum locks and latches, which he said could be damaged simply by closing the door improperly.
Sanders and the other officers who were with him that night said they had pepper-sprayed Baker when they arrested him and had spent a good four minutes rinsing his eyes out when they got to the station. They said none of the sinks in Columbia's jail cells had running water at the time and the only water available was in the toilet. Sanders said when he told Baker this, Baker said he wouldn't use the water in the toilet to continue washing out his eyes, to which Sanders replied he did not blame him. Shortly after this, Baker began shouting threats and pounding on the cell door.
At the time of the incident, Sanders and police chief Ken Burton both said department policy was that an unruly prisoner would receive a verbal warning. If the behavior continued, the prisoner would be handcuffed to a ring on the cell's floor. Burton said he has since done away with the floor ring option. Sanders said he gave Baker a warning, after which Baker temporarily stopped pounding on the door. During cross-examination, Sanders was asked whether he ever offered Baker any more water. Sanders said he did not and he doubted it would have made any difference in either Baker's behavior or his efforts to get pepper spray out of his system. Burton said Sanders should have tried offering Baker another cup of water or some other method of subduing him peacefully. The police chief said Sanders probably should have also tried simply ignoring Baker.
"(Baker) was safe in the cell, he was not trying to escape, and the officers were safe because they were outside the cell," he said.
Once Sanders decided force was necessary, he said he felt his options were limited. He had locked away his sidearm as a safety measure upon entering the holding area, he did not have a taser, and he felt a baton would have been excessive. He said he considered a leg sweep but ruled that out due to the cell's tight quarters. He said he felt a push was the safest and most effective move for everyone involved. Sanders explained police are trained to use "100 percent" of the force they are physically capable of to keep fights short and minimize the chance for injury to themselves or their opponents.
Burton said he did not have a problem with the decision to restrain Baker so much as the way it was executed. He said Sanders should have had a plan for dealing with Baker rather than simply rushing in.
"Get the resources you need to do, take him over there, handcuff him to the ring. I have no issue with that," he said. "I have an issue with bouncing him off the wall first."
Once the Personnel Advisory Board issues a recommendation whether or not to reinstate Sanders, City Manager Mike Matthes will have final say on whether to rehire him.