Fullerton Police to Clear Kelly Thomas of Any Wrongdoing

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Fourteen months and two city councils later, Fullerton police will clear Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died as the result of a police beating, of any wrongdoing, according to his father.

In an email statement to news reporters over the weekend, Ron Thomas stated that acting Police Chief Dan Hughes will make the announcement during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.

Police spokesman Sgt. Jeff Stuart said Hughes hadn’t told him of the announcement. But Ron Thomas, in his statement, announced that “next Tuesday, September 18th at 6:30pm during the Fullerton City Council Meeting, Captain Hughes is going to speak to the City Council in a public forum and clear Kelly of ALL wrong doings that he was accused of.”

Ron Thomas has doggedly worked to call attention to the July 5, 2011, police beating of his son at the Fullerton bus station. Kelly Thomas, 37, who suffered from schizophrenia, died five days later without regaining consciousness. A video with audio from police recorders was created of Thomas’ beating by the office of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

Initially, police said officers responded to the scene to investigate reports that someone fitting Thomas’ description was breaking into cars. Officials had also indicated that Thomas had resisted arrest.

“Over the last three weeks, Captain Dan Hughes, acting Chief of Police in Fullerton and I have been working on wording that I have now approved as to clearing Kelly’s name,” Ron Thomas said in his statement.

Police use of force against mentally ill individuals has been drawing increasing attention in several areas of the nation. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department’s office in Portland, Ore., issued a report asserting that the Portland police were too inclined to use force when dealing with mentally ill men and women.

The Portland Oregonian newspaper reported that the federal investigation, which began in 2011, determined Portland police engaged in a “pattern and practice” of excessive use of force, particularly when dealing with people who were mentally ill.

In the aftermath of Kelly Thomas’ death, Rackauckas filed charges against two of the six officers involved in his beating and suffocation.

Officer Manuel Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and excessive use of force, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli is accused of involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. Both have pleaded not guilty. Three of the six officers involved in Kelly Thomas’ death have resigned.

Three Fullerton City Council members were recalled in June, in part because critics said they failed to respond quickly and compassionately to Kelly Thomas’ death. Former police Chief Michael Sellers went on medical leave shortly after the beating and ultimately retired.

The city hired Michael Gennaco, who heads the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, to do both a police internal affairs investigation of the death and to report to city leaders on problems within the police department.

Gennaco reported to the City Council last month that at the time Kelly Thomas died, the police department had a “culture of complacency” in its former top leadership that led to lax oversight of officers and the standards they were supposed to meet.

“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.”

Before it received the report, new City Council members wanted to begin work on possibly closing down the police department and turning local law enforcement over to the county sheriff.

A majority of the five-member council didn’t immediately support the move. The issue may come before the City Council again after the November election.

Ron Thomas had repeatedly asked the former City Council to clear his son’s name, and he renewed the request to the new City Council when Gennaco gave his report. Both councils met his request with silence.

Thomas also is suing the city over his son’s death.

— TRACY WOOD

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