A judge Monday rejected a lawsuit by fired Columbia police officer Rob Sanders that sought to force the city to reinstate him and to give him back pay with interest and benefits.
Circuit Judge Dennis Rolf ended a legal fight of more than seven years when he ruled that then-City Manager Mike Matthes acted within the law when he upheld Sanders’ termination.
Police Chief Ken Burton initially fired Sanders after finding that he used excessive force in restraining a prisoner in the Police Department’s holding cell in 2011. Burton made the decision despite an Internal Affairs finding that Sanders acted within Police Department policy when he shoved Kenneth Baker into the back wall of the holding cell with such force that he suffered a compression fracture of his vertebra.
Baker in December 2011 accepted a $250,000 settlement from the city.
Burton’s decision to fire Sanders was upheld by Human Resources Manager Margrace Buckler and by the city’s Personnel Advisory Board, which held a lengthy hearing before making its decision and forwarding its report to Matthes.
Rolf, who normally presides over cases in Lafayette and Saline counties, received the case on a change of venue. He wrote in his ruling that it was not his job to judge whether Sanders used excessive force.
“It is not the Courts (sic) duty to decide this case based on its opinion of the proper punishment, if any, to be imposed on Plaintiff by Defendant, instead the Court’s review of the City Manager Matthes’ Final Determination ... ‘is confined to exclusively legal considerations’ — meaning that this Court must determine whether the decision ‘was or was not lawful.’”
Rolf wrote that Columbia’s city charter empowers the city manager to make such decisions and that Matthes had substantial evidence to support him. He also noted Sanders’ “history of discipline, including thirteen instances of discipline and four suspensions in approximately seventeen years of service.”
Rolf ruled that Sanders is entitled to no relief and ordered him to cover court costs.
In a news release, the Columbia Police Officers’ Association expressed continued support for Sanders.
Officer Sanders was Chief Burton’s scapegoat for PR purposes and was fired “for doing what the Department trained him to do” and “for following the Department’s written policy,” according to the news release.
However, Dale Roberts, executive director of the CPOA, said the organization would accept Judge Rolf’s ruling.
“I can’t argue with the judge’s reasoning,” Roberts said.
Sanders did not reach out to the CPOA for financial assistance for legal fees, Roberts said.