Letting Officers in Thomas Beating Watch Video a ‘Mistake’

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Fullerton’s interim police chief has told the Orange County Register that letting officers involved in the beating death of Kelly Thomas see a video of the incident while writing their initial statements was a “mistake.”

The decision “compromised, or at least damaged, the public’s trust and confidence in the process,” said Capt. Dan Hughes, who was patrol captain on the night of the incident and is now acting police chief. “That was a mistake from our department.”

Hughes added that he had objected to letting the officers watch the tape but was ultimately overruled by his superiors.

Thomas’ death last July ignited a firestorm of public anger at the officers’ actions and their department’s response. Prosecutors say an officer provoked the confrontation with Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who was a familiar sight in downtown, during which another officer repeatedly hit Thomas in the head with a Taser gun.

Two officers — Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli — are now facing a criminal trial over their roles in Thomas’ death. Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter.

This week, three of the six officers involved were given notice that they will be fired.

And early next month three Fullerton City Council members will face a recall election fueled largely by their early reactions to the Thomas incident.

After the beating, Fullerton’s police chief, Michael Sellers, refused to speak publicly and calm public concerns. He went on medical leave as public outcry intensified and retired earlier this year. Hughes took over command of the department.

In his interview with the Register, Hughes described his experience on the night of the beating.

From the Register’s story:

A department watch commander called Hughes at home minutes after paramedics loaded Thomas into an ambulance with injuries to his head and chest that would prove to be fatal. Even then, Hughes said he realized from the commander’s description of Thomas’ injuries that he might die.

He called an internal-affairs sergeant as he drove to the scene, as well as the detectives who handle the sensitive and highly scrutinized investigations into officer-involved shootings. Crime-scene investigators were brought in; so were homicide detectives.

From the beginning, Hughes said, “I wanted us to handle this like an officer-involved shooting.” He told the six officers who had taken down Thomas that would mean they would have to answer questions from investigators in person, not write reports. He said he had even called in detectives to do the interviews.

But as the investigation shifted to internal affairs, Hughes said, the department decided to let the officers write their statements, a move more typical of lower-level use-of-force cases. They were also allowed to view the video of their encounter with Thomas.

Hughes said he argued against letting the officers watch the tape, in part because civilians suspected of misconduct would not be given the same opportunity. He said he did not think it was illegal or unethical, but did fear it would erode public trust in the investigation.

The fact that the officers watched the video before giving their statements was first reported last summer by the blog Friends for Fullerton’s Future and KFI-AM radio.

In the weeks after the incident, allegations swirled that the police department tried to cover up the alleged crime.

A Fullerton city councilman even charged that police officials intentionally misrepresented what took place.

“I’m angry that we’ve been lied to internally and that I can’t rely upon official sources of information,” Councilman Bruce Whitaker said at the time.

In his interview with the Register, the acting chief rejected accusations that his department attempted to cover up the alleged crime. Where it did fail, Hughes said, was in communicating to the public.

“We blew it,” he said.

— NICK GERDA

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