Special Investigator Foreshadows Review of Fullerton Police

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | Michael Gennaco, the special investigator Fullerton plans to hire to review its police department, said Monday that he will look at a wide range of policies, training and hiring practices, including when and how officers are allowed to use force to subdue someone.

Gennaco, chief attorney for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, didn’t discuss specifics of how he will scrutinize the 145-member department following the beating death of schizophrenic transient Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police officers.

A group of six officers repeatedly beat and used a stun gun on Thomas during a confrontation at the Fullerton bus station on July 2. Thomas died on July 10. Both the Orange District Attorney’s Office and the FBI have launched investigations.

The officers involved are on administrative leave. Police Chief Michael Sellers has been criticized for letting all but one stay on patrol for about three weeks after Kelly Thomas was beaten. Sellers went on medical leave last week.

Gennaco said a broad-based review of training, of use-of-force policies and practices and of hiring policies, including background checks, are typical in outside investigations of police departments. The Fullerton City Council will vote on Gennaco’s contract tonight.

Groups of angry protestors have demonstrated outside the police department each Saturday and taken to the microphones at City Council meetings to criticize the council majority for not responding quickly to Thomas’ death.

Gennaco said it was difficult to say how long his investigation will take, because he will need information developed during the DA’s ongoing investigation.

“Some of our output is dependent on how long they take,” he said. The DA’s investigation can’t be completed until autopsy toxicology reports are finished, which could take a few more weeks, possibly months.

Gennaco said it’s possible parts of his investigation not directly related to Thomas’ death can be completed and made public before the DA’s probe is finished. When it’s finished, he said, his report will include both its findings and any recommendations for changes.

As head of the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, created 10 years ago, Gennaco manages a team that monitors the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to “ensure that allegations of officer misconduct involving LASD are investigated in thorough, fair, and effective ways,” according to the office’s mission statement.

Gennaco is the former chief of the civil rights section in the Los Angeles region of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He has prosecuted hate crimes and police misconduct cases.

Among them was the first prosecution for hate email, a 1997 case in which a former UC Irvine student sent a message threatening to “hunt down and kill” Asian students at the university. The jury deadlocked, and the case ended in a mistrial.

Use of Force

Fullerton’s use-of-force policy includes a section outlining the department’s “philosophy” on how officers are to use force, saying the issue is “a matter of critical concern both to the public and to the law enforcement community.”

The policy also states, “Any officer present and observing another officer using force that is clearly beyond that which is objectively reasonable under the circumstances shall, when in a position to do so, intercede to prevent the use of such excessive force.”

It’s not known whether any of the six officers involved in the death of Kelly Thomas believed that the force being used to subdue him was excessive, tried to intercede or filed a report later with their supervisors.

The DA’s office has declined to release a police video of the incident, saying it might affect the testimony of witnesses. The officers, however, were allowed to view it before filing their reports.

Gennaco and a spokesman for the state’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) said there is no uniform California law-enforcement policy on use of force.

“Every department has their own, but they tend to be similar,” said Gennaco.

Most police departments have had training in dealing with mentally ill and homeless persons as well as use of force as part of their basic instruction.

In addition, the POST website offers police departments a variety of training options, including two-hour videos that cost $99 each.

One training video “focuses on the relationship between law enforcement and the mental health community and provides instruction on how to handle situations involving persons with psychological disabilities.”

The video also “presents effective tactics used by peace officers when approaching and communicating with persons suffering mental illness and profiles successful partnerships between law enforcement and mental health professionals.”

The video was created in 2000 and doesn’t appear to have been updated. Only law enforcement personnel are permitted to view the videos.

A dozen Fullerton officers have had more recent special training in working with the mentally ill, offered since 2008 through the county Health Care Agency.

It’s not known whether any of those officers were on duty July 2, the night officers said Thomas became violent when they confronted him about reports that someone was breaking into cars near the Fullerton bus station.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.


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