Capt. Dan Hughes was the man in charge of the Fullerton Police Department’s uniform division on the night of July 5, 2011, when six patrol officers were involved in the beating death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas.
The watch commander telephoned Hughes sometime after 9 p.m., shortly after paramedics were called to the Fullerton bus station, where a bloodied and battered Thomas lay unconscious.
“Someone was seriously injured,” the watch commander told Hughes.
“The mere fact that I was being called told me there was something unusual,” he recalled. Hughes said he immediately left his home in Yorba Linda and headed toward Fullerton.
Thomas died five days later. Hughes spent the following weeks and months at the center of a nationwide uproar over the beating. And he watched the reputation of his department fall into a state of ruin as more and more details of the beating were disclosed while his superiors avoided the public.
On Jan. 3 he took over as acting chief of the Fullerton Police Department. On Jan. 4 he spent several hours taking questions from two reporters, showing them around the department and in general making a determined effort to emphasize ethics, openness and widespread communication with the community.
“When we are given the opportunity to place this badge on our chest, this badge is a symbol of public trust,” he said. “If an officer chooses to make an unethical decision … it tarnishes that badge. There will be no compromise in terms of what this department is to do.”
Hughes’ words and actions represent a significant departure from the way his predecessors handled the public and media scrutiny in the wake of the beating. Chief Michael Sellers went on medical leave a month to the day after Thomas died and has not returned. Kevin Hamilton, who became acting chief, largely ignored interview requests.
Is Hughes’ current tack the beginning of a long-lasting change in the department’s culture or simply a temporary strategy? Either way, experts say, the new chief has his work cut out for him.
“They’re [Fullerton police] in a tough place,” said crisis management expert Mark Saylor, a former top editor at the Los Angeles Times whose communications clients have included Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and international issues in the Russian Caucasus regions.
“Losing a reputation is easy. Gaining it takes a long time,” Saylor said.
Hughes faces more than just the pounding of the department’s reputation from the Kelly Thomas case. In recent years there have been six other cases involving officers accused of misdeeds, including beating a man in custody, abusing women who were under arrest and accusations of false arrest.
And Hughes seems far from gaining the trust of Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ father.
Thomas cited the previous cases in a written statement in December that was critical of Hughes’ selection as acting chief.
He said the appointment signaled “business as usual” in Fullerton.
Persuading the public otherwise will take a consistent effort from the city’s entire leadership, Saylor said.
“A lot depends on the kind of relationship the department wants to have with the community and what the [city] politicians want,” Saylor said. “The Los Angeles Police Department for years had a reputation for being one of the toughest, nastiest departments in the country, and the political leaders were just fine with that.”
If Fullerton truly wants to change its reputation, he said, “the most important thing” is “people want to know that it can’t happen again.”
Hughes did his best to make that case during a five-hour interview and jail-cell-to-executive-offices tour with reporters from the town’s volunteer-produced newspaper, the Fullerton Observer, and Voice of OC. He delivered messages both to members of his department and to the town.
“I believe in being open and honest. I believe in being transparent,” he said. “Where anybody will have me, I will talk to them.”
He said he wants to set a public example of how members of the department should interact with the public. Officers should know he’ll strongly back those who act ethically, but sent a warning to anyone doesn’t.
“I’m very proud of this police department,” he said. “I believe in transparency. I believe our actions should match our words. The vast majority of officers here believe the same way I do. I will be actively supporting the police officers who conduct themselves honorably.”
But, he said, “one of the things I’m doing as the acting chief is putting things in place to ensure officers are acting in a highly ethical manner. Our department spends a lot of time and money on training and tactics, but little on the moral or ethical consequences of them.”
The 47-year-old Hughes said those consequences matter to him. He grew up in Fullerton and his parents still live in his boyhood home.
While he can’t discuss issues related to the criminal case against officer Manuel Ramos and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, he did share details regarding his thoughts and actions on the night of Thomas’ death that he hadn’t publicly shared before.
As he was driving from his home to the station that night, he called the leaders of the department’s internal affairs and major crimes units to let them know something had happened.
“I told them, ‘You need to be handling this as if it is an officer-involved shooting,’ ” he said. He also told them to call the district attorney’s office so they could send out investigators.
Then he talked to the police department’s public information officer, Andrew Goodrich, notified the captain in charge of investigations, telling him to get investigators to work immediately. He told them also to call the DA’s office, and finally he called Chief Sellers.
“All of this within 15 minutes,” he repeats. “I did not know that he [Thomas] was going to die.”
But, he said, he acted in the way he expects the department to respond to any police case that results in a serious injury.
“I don’t think we’ve done a good job of explaining our department to the community,” he said, adding “there’s just not a lot in policing that I believe should be secret. We work for the community.”
He added: “When I tell you something, you should hold me accountable for it.”