Columbia police chief faces calls for ouster (expanded)

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton says he’s just doing his job of changing a department rife with mismanagement and cronyism. But critics calling for his ouster say he’s sacrificing employee morale, endangering officers’ safety and harming the force’s reputation.

His firing of officer Rob Sanders in September over an incident with an inmate in a police holding cell that Burton says was excessive force has led supporters of Sanders to collect petition signatures in hopes of getting him reinstated and the chief fired.

“I’m not here to win a popularity contest,” the 56-year-old Burton said. “I’m here to run a police department the best way I know. I am not going to run from issues.”

An internal investigation cleared Sanders of wrongdoing. Burton said he overrode the findings because they reached a “completely incorrect conclusion.” Sanders is appealing his firing over the August incident, which left the inmate with a fractured vertebra.

“I make no apologies,” the chief said. “When you’re trying to implement a system of accountability where there was none, you’re going to get pushback.”

Burton was hired in January 2009 after a three-decade law enforcement career in Texas, including chief stints in Haltom City and Bryan. In Columbia, he said he inherited a department in which previous chiefs “would back officers even when they’re wrong.”

He said hundreds of incident reports — some as old as 10 months — had not been filed, and officers had ignored court orders to dispose of seized weapons and instead kept those guns for personal use. The police evidence room was in disarray, he said.

Columbia City Manager Mike Matthes said “99 percent of my contact with the community is supportive of Chief Burton.” Matthes joined the city six months ago; his predecessor, Bill Watkins, hired Burton.

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