‘Culture of Complacency’ Led to Fullerton Police Beating Death


Fullerton Police Department headquarters. (Photo by: Tracy Wood)

The death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas was the ultimate result of a “culture of complacency” in the former top leadership of the Fullerton Police Department that led to lax oversight of officers and the standards they were supposed to meet, according to an independent assessment of the department.

Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, presented the Fullerton City Council Tuesday with a 53-page report that included 59 recommendations to raise standards within the department.

A key recommendation is creation of an independent oversight body to make sure the department “objectively and thoroughly investigates critical incidents and allegations of misconduct” and delivers “objective” disciplinary decisions.

The City Council didn’t make any final decisions as a result of the report, but members said at least some of the issues should be studied further.

The 37-year-old Thomas died five days after being beaten and suffocated July 5, 2011, by six police officers at the Fullerton bus station.

“Since that time,” the Gennaco report states, “FPD has received much criticism about the way in which its officers acted that night and the Department’s response, much of it well-deserved. …”

“That being said,” the report continues, “the FPD that existed on July 5, 2011 is not the FPD of more than a year later — changed leadership, introspection, and reform has placed the Department in an upward trajectory.”

In the wake of Kelly Thomas’ death, former Police Chief Michael Sellers went on extended medical leave, then retired. Other leaders also stepped down. Captain Dan Hughes now is acting chief.

Two of the six officers involved in Thomas’ death are awaiting trial. Officer Manuel Ramos is changed with second-degree murder and excessive use of force, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is accused of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. At least three other officers have left the department.

The officers are strongly criticized in the Gennaco report.

“The officers’ initial interaction with Mr. Thomas unnecessarily escalated a situation that, if handled professionally, could have been resolved without significant force,” it asserts.

During comments before the City Council, Gennaco was more blunt, calling some of the officers' actions “juvenile.”

In the report, Gennaco asserts that “the officers dealing with Mr. Thomas found a way to transform a casual encounter into an incident resulting in death. Every patrol officer in America should know that there is a correlation between being homeless and the existence of mental illness.”

Instead, according to the report, “the attitude adopted by the primary officer was one of disdain and impatience …”

Overall, Gennaco concluded, there was no “culture of corruption” within the Fullerton Police Department, but there was a “culture of complacency.” Former department leaders didn’t hold officers accountable for their actions, he alleged.

Among the many issues raised in the report, Gennaco stated that improved training is needed, not just in when use of force is acceptable but also in dealing with mentally ill people. An officer specially trained to work with the homeless should be assigned to each police shift, and more officers should be required to use digital audio recorders with stronger oversight, Gennaco concluded.

Officers shouldn’t have been allowed to watch video of the Kelly Thomas beating captured by a bus station camera before writing their reports, and a senior officer shouldn’t have been allowed to edit reports, according to Gennaco.

The report alleges that the police department wasn’t clear about what issues should or shouldn’t be referred to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for review. In a related issue, Gennaco noted it took two days for the department to bring in the district attorney’s office after the Kelly Thomas beating.

Another issue in the investigation was an apparent rivalry between some of the former department leaders that forced lower ranking officers to “choose sides.”

Gennaco said the goal of the report is to move the police department to a high standard of performance, not just set a baseline for conduct.

Thirty-four of the 59 recommendations already have been put in place, according to Hughes. Among those is a policy to have the police chief or a city official comment publicly when something happens to call an officer's conduct into question.

After Kelly Thomas was beaten, the police department’s public information officer, who also was a police union executive, was the spokesman. Erroneous information was released, including a statement that one of the officers had broken bones. Gennaco said there was no evidence the wrong information was put out deliberately.

One area where the department and the city were strongly criticized was for not expressing condolences to Kelly Thomas’ family for his death. Supporters of his father, Ron Thomas, repeatedly criticized the City Council for not showing strong sympathy.

The Gennaco report states “the Department should not be reticent about expressing regret should tragedy befall a citizen as a result of an FPD officer’s use of force.”

Thomas urged the City Council twice Tuesday night to clear his son’s name, noting that Kelly Thomas committed no crime. The June recall by voters of the council's three-member majority was due in large part to the anger that developed over the way they handled the Kelly Thomas case. They said they were instructed by the city attorney not to say anything.

But when Thomas, who has a lawsuit pending against the city over his son’s death, asked the new council majority to clear his son’s name, he again was met with silence.

The overflow crowd at Tuesday’s council meeting included about half of those in the audience wearing blue T-shirts that read “I ♥ Fullerton police.” Another large bloc were longtime backers of Kelly Thomas’ family. And some speakers said they were both.

Earlier this month, the new council considered asking the Sheriff’s Department for information on the cost and services it could provide if Fullerton disbanded its police department. But they finally voted not to do it now.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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