Fullerton Residents: Keep Thomas Officers Off the Force

Jay Cicinelli
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Dozens of local residents urged the Fullerton City Council Tuesday night to reject efforts by three fired officers in the Kelly Thomas beating to get their jobs back.

“I know you guys will do the right thing.  Just make sure that creep doesn’t come back here,” said resident Scott Wilkins, referring to former officer Jay Cicinelli.

The demands came during an overflow council meeting, following a weekend street protest where 14 people were arrested.

Hundreds of residents showed up, packing both the council chambers and an overflow room. More than 40 people spoke, none of whom said they wanted the officers to come back.

Police Chief Dan Hughes, meanwhile, told the audience he will “vigorously defend” his decision to fire the officers.

Many also showed their shock at last week’s not-guilty verdict against Cicinelli and former officer Manual Ramos.

“I am a furious citizen, but I come in peace,” said Fullerton resident Matt Ivers. “Who will protect us, the people, when the police violate the law?”

Sierra Madre resident Tony Brandenburg said he is “haunted” by the acquittal.

One of the officers, meanwhile, said the testimony of his training officer and the outcome of the trial show he shouldn’t have been fired.

“I was wrongfully terminated. How do you argue with a jury of 12 who all agree on the same thing?” Cicinelli told The Orange County Register. “They sat through the whole trial and heard all the facts.”

Saturday’s demonstration brought out a wide range of protesters and drew attention around the globe, from New York to London to Iran.

“I hear references about our city that are going out all over the world,” said resident Brian Gerdes. “To me it’s very embarrassing.”

As for the officers’ firing, City Attorney Richard Jones said that under state law the officers can appeal it.

Once an arbitrator issues an advisory opinion, the City Council then decides whether to uphold the firing. If the council does uphold it, the officers can take their case to the courts.

Jones cautioned council members against giving their opinion about the case before issuing their ruling, saying it could bolster the officers’ case for wrongful termination.

Several speakers urged the council to create a citizens oversight commission, which got a warm reception from Councilman Bruce Whitaker.

“I do support such a citizens oversight commission,” Whitaker said, prompting applause from the audience.

Councilwoman Jan Flory, meanwhile, said the council had studied the different models and realized that state law prevents commissions from having true subpoena power.

The council majority decided on an “audit model,” Flory said, in which an outside consultant determines whether the department is following proper protocols.

Flory added that the police department has undergone major reforms, including a new police chief, a new City Council majority overseeing it, and a “top-to-bottom audit.”

In a surprising admission, Hughes said the department “had a significant problem with nepotism.”

The department has changed the way it hires officers, he added, now using an outside firm for background investigations.

Hughes also pointed to an increase in homelessness liaison officers from one to four, eight hours in mental health training for all police staff, a mental health clinician who rides with officers and the building of a database about the homeless population and their needs.

Thomas’ death is now being investigated by the FBI for potential civil rights violations.

That investigation, Hughes said, could lead to a lawsuit against the city by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Such a lawsuit was filed against the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating and Rampart corruption scandal.

Those lawsuits often lead to a “consent decree,” a court-enforced agreement to reform a police department.

In a bid to prompt federal charges, activists have been circulating an online petition calling on the Obama administration to pursue a case.

It had 12,500 signatures as of Wednesday, with another 87,500 needed by Feb. 13 in order to get a reply from the White House.

The weekend protest was on the minds of many speakers, who questioned why police shut down a protest in which a small portion of the overall demonstrators acted unlawfully.

Several also spoke of undercover officers “snatching” protesters off the street, including a peaceful gathering at Kelly Thomas’ memorial. Some commenters drew comparisons to Nazi Germany.

Hughes, meanwhile, defended the department’s handing of the protest, saying police had an obligation to respond when violence and property damage occur.

“Unfortunately, people came to this particular [protest] with the intent to disrupt it and cause violence,” said Hughes.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that a gathering must be violent or “pose a clear and present danger of imminent violence” in order to be declared an unlawful assembly.

Some residents pointed out that it was a small minority of overall protesters who were violent.

Ivers said that shouldn’t mean the other 98 percent of demonstrators don’t get their First Amendment right to protest.

“There is no reason the police can break that up,” said Ivers.

As for the overall department’s direction, activist Christine Walker said that Hughes has taken steps in the right direction but that there’s still a long way to go.

Walker said she appreciates officers like Cpl. John DeCaprio, a homelessness liaison officer, but that the police culture needs to be changed to hold bad cops accountable.

Others suggested that officers wear cameras.

Going forward, Ron Thomas is trying to change the Peace Officers Bill of Rights so the public has a right to know when an officer has been disciplined.

He also has an ongoing civil lawsuit against the city.

One thing was clear: Kelly Thomas’s death has left a lasting mark on this city of 139,000.

“I think you will hear the screams of Kelly Thomas in these streets, especially [in] downtown, forever,” said Wilkins. “It will never go away.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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