Years After Thomas Beating, Fullerton Police Have New Approach to Homeless

Spencer Custodio for Voice of OC

An officer with the Fullerton Police Department's homeless liaison unit and volunteers from the nonprofit Coast to Coast speak to a homeless man in a Fullerton parking garage.

Two weeks ago, a couple officers from the Fullerton Police Department happened upon Steve, a homeless man, sleeping alongside a row of gas meters and his overturned shopping cart in a parking garage across from the city’s Fox Theatre.

It is a situation similar to countless others that police come upon in the course of their work. But what made it different was that the officers were from the department’s homeless liaison unit, and they were accompanied by volunteers from the Coast to Coast Foundation, a Yorba Linda-based nonprofit homeless support group.

And together, the volunteers and the police officers coaxed Steve, who did not want to give his last name, into the Crossroads homeless shelter in Santa Ana.

Coast to Coast and the police first partnered up in 2012, a year after six Fullerton officers were involved in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man. The gruesome beating put Fullerton in the national spotlight and ultimately led to the retirement of police Chief Mike Sellers, the recall of three council members, and criminal charges against three officers.

In 2014, an Orange County jury acquitted officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli of murder and manslaughter charges. After the verdict, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said he wouldn’t prosecute the third officer, Joe Wolfe. All three are no longer at the Fullerton Police Department.

Thomas’ death revealed the dearth of resources and training at the department for dealing with Fullerton’s homeless population, which is among the largest in the county. At the time, the department had one officer devoted solely to homeless people. Now it has four full-time officers in the liaison unit.

Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes said that when he first started with the department 30 years ago, calls about homeless people would usually take just a few minutes because officers would do little more than tell them to “move on.”

“Those same types of calls can take an hour to deal with,” Hughes said. “Because we’re trying to get down to the root cause — what we can do to help that person.”

And the root cause, more often than not is some level of mental illness. This was apparent when Coast to Coast volunteers handed Steve a sacked lunch that was donated by a local church and tried to get him to a shelter during a Thursday ride-along with the unit.

“Just leave me alone,” Steve told the officers and foundation volunteers. “These guys are just trying to take my money.”

Cpl. Mike McCaskill of the liaison unit said that Steve gets money every month, but chooses to stay outdoors. Steve declined an interview with the Voice of OC.

Steve initially didn’t want to speak with the officers and chose to talk with the volunteers only and asked the foundation members to help him gather his belongings that were strewn across on the garage floor.

After nearly and hour, officers and volunteers convinced Steve go to the shelter after they paid $135 for him to stay until the end of the month and paid for a taxi to shuttle him there. The city reimburses some of the costs that the nonprofit racks up in assisting the homeless.

This level of intervention is a far cry from what the department was doing just a few years ago.

Hughes said that the unit had over 5,800 calls for homeless-related issues last year. And since its inception in 2012, the liaison unit and Coast to Coast have helped over 180 people into permanent shelter.

“What I’ve tried to discuss in the past is that homelessness is … a social issue that the police have been pretty much forced to try to deal with,” Hughes said. “Any community that gets 5,800 calls for a particular problem should be looking on how to deal with that problem long-term.”

Marie Avena, founder and executive director of Coast to Coast, echoed Hughes’ sentiment. “It’s a community issue, not a police or nonprofit problem.”

While all the Fullerton police officers undergo mental health and homeless issues training, Hughes said the liaison unit receives specialized training. Even with the training, the person has to be a right fit for the unit.

“If you don’t have that desire to really go out and help other people and make a difference, that training is useless,” he said.

The unit has began to garner attention throughout the region, with the Los Angeles, Buena Park and Garden Grove police departments calling Fullerton within the past month to gain insight into how the program works, McCaskill said.

A key component, McCaskill said, is the partnership with Coast to Coast. Many people, Steve included, would rather talk to the volunteer group for advice and assistance.

Coast to Coast also works alongside Anaheim and Huntington Beach police departments in similar programs.

Volunteer Carrie Delaurie said that some of the homeless people get used of their support systems falling to the wayside and experience a “sense of hopelessness” that keeps them on the streets.

“Sometimes they don’t believe that people want to help them,” Delaurie said, who is a social worker that deals exclusively with homeless people at St. Jude Medical Center.

In other cases, McCaskill said, the people want to stay on the streets. “At least we can explain to them why we’re getting the calls for them,” he said. “The communication often times solves the problem.”

The new approach gets good reviews from Curtis Gamble, a homeless man and homeless advocate who circulates a one-page list that has information on services like shelter and soup kitchen locations and the bus routes to get to there.

“I think they’re (the liaison unit and foundation) a good organization,” Gamble said. “They’re always very nice and polite. It helps that they let us know where we can get the help.”

  • Jacki Livingston

    You know, I am sure that cynics will nitpick. And I am pretty sure about idiocy in government being hard to fix. However, if Fullerton has changed, even a little, then they are leading the way. Cities like Costa Mesa and Orange are blind. I think they deserve to get some credit for making a positive change. And, for those who do not think it is enough, get off your duff and help.

  • RyanCantor

    “Marie Avena, founder and executive director of Coast to Coast, echoed Hughes’ sentiment. ‘It’s a community issue, not a police or nonprofit problem.’ ”

    Nicely put.

    • LFOldTimer

      It is a police issue since cops come in contact with homeless people all the time. As such, it is their issue, like it or not. Otherwise it’s as dumb as saying drug and alcohol abuse is not a police issue. Marie Avena is out to lunch on this one IMO.

      • RyanCantor

        Using law enforcement to address social crises is an overly expensive short term mitigation to a chronic long term need.

        In short, it’s not smart. It’s not a police issue. These folks aren’t committing crimes. We can do better.

        • David Zenger

          Years After Thomas Beating, Fullerton Police Have New Approach to Homeless

          The very headline suggests it is a police issue – because, of course, the cops have to enforce the anti-camping laws on the books, and whatever unofficial standards are passed down to them or that they concoct – off the books.

          Too bad the summary killing of Kelly Thomas is being linked to the new, improved (yet, somehow unreconstructed) version of the FPD, because the killing (some still say murder) had zero to do with a lack of “education” and “training” that would appear to make Wolfe and Ramos into victims themselves.

          • LFOldTimer

            The police use the “lack of training” excuse for everything these days, David. It’s a phony dodge. They know it and they know we know it. But no one in political positions of authority calls them out. Why? Because it’s a big club. That’s why.

        • LFOldTimer

          “Using law enforcement to address social crises is an overly expensive short term mitigation to a chronic long term need.”
          That doesn’t even make any sense. So should the police stop responding to family disturbances that are caused by a variety of social dysfunctions (drugs, alcohol, poverty, PTSD, hormone imbalances, mental illness, etc…) to cut down on expenditures caused by factors beyond their control? I think you should rethink your position.
          Look, the police just don’t show up and contact a homeless person unless he or she is suspected of violating some ordinance or law. They don’t show up to “homeless man is hungry” calls. So I don’t know what you even mean. You lost me.

        • RyanCantor

          Alright you two, if you want to represent that the primary interaction between “The State” and the homeless ought to be law enforcement, be my guest.

          That’s going to be a lonely island you’re occupying, but it’s yours if you want it.

          • LFOldTimer

            I never said that the primary interaction between The State and the Homeless should be the cops, Ryan. You’re putting words in my mouth. Didn’t you read my previous comments? The cops shouldn’t respond to a citizen complaint about a homeless man who is hungry, wearing tattered clothing or happens to wander into a high-brow neighborhood and is visually upsetting to the rich people. That’s why we have social workers. The only time cops should get involved (as with any other contact) is when there is a question whether a crime has been committed or a service call or a citizen needs assistance (e.g. an elderly person fell in their home and can’t get up). You’re the one who somehow believes that police should not interact with the homeless population. That’s a silly notion.

          • RyanCantor

            LFOldtimer, you just conceded the point that this isn’t a police issue, (“The only time cops should get involved . . .”) which is the entire point of both the article (“What I’ve tried to discuss in the past is that homelessness is … a social issue that the police have been pretty much forced to try to deal with.”– Hughes) and my comments.

            In any case, I’m glad to hear you’ve sworn off the lonely island.

          • Jacki Livingston

            And, let me add, homeless men, women and children are far more likely to be the victims of crime, than those who are not homeless. Homeless women are raped at a percentage 60% higher than other women. Homeless children are molested at a higher rate. They suffer robbery, assault, murder and property crime. The homeless are citizens and the crimes against them should be looked at, as well.

          • LFOldTimer

            “LFOldtimer, you just conceded the point that this isn’t a police issue, (“The only time cops should get involved . . .”) which is the entire point of both the article…..”
            Again, I didn’t concede anything, Ryan. Read my comments more than once. Maybe that would help with your ability to comprehend. I said police contact with the homeless should only occur if there was a report of a crime that involved a homeless person OR if a service call is needed (the homeless person is incapacitated or injured). IOW’s if a homeless person is hungry, soiled or doesn’t have enough money to purchase food – that is not a police matter and the police should not get involved. It depends on the situation. But it stands to reason that the homeless are vulnerable on the streets and will probably come in police contact more than the average person. There. Is that clear enough for you?

          • RyanCantor

            You need to relax OldTimer. This thread is several days old. Let it go.

            And that’s the second time you conceded the same point. (That means we’re on the same page. Calm down.)

          • LFOldTimer

            So you tell me to “let it go” while you come back for another round? ha. I guess you ran out of arguments after I took you to the woodshed so you had to make it personal. ha. When people make it personal it generally means they’ve lost the debate. Want some more? back it up.

          • RyanCantor

            The woodshed?! My suggestion to relax is for your good, not mine.

            Alright, bro. Good luck to you. Hopefully some good comes from our discussion on improving conditions for the homeless.

          • David Zenger

            “…if you want to represent that the primary interaction between “The State” and the homeless ought to be law enforcement, be my guest.”

            Whoa, who said that?

          • Jacki Livingston

            I have to agree with you, Ryan, that it should not be that way. But, sadly, the homeless encounter police daily, while most of us turn our eyes away and ignore them. The police should have resources that they can refer anyone in need to. But, the truth is, their job is to protect all of the citizens. They are underfunded and understaffed and they are not social workers. Officers can, however, treat the homeless with compassion and respect, because they are citizens in the community. But, for once, I have to agree with you on an issue. It should NOT be that way. But, sadly, it is.

  • David Zenger

    “Thomas’ death revealed the dearth of resources and training at the
    department for dealing with Fullerton’s homeless population, which is
    among the largest in the county.”

    Well, that’s the narrative we are supposed to believe, courtesy of Fullerton’s liberals and the police department. In fact, Kelly Thomas was singled out, harassed, threatened, attacked and killed. Lack of “understanding” or “resources” is simply an exculpatory diversion. Thomas had a target on his back.

    • LFOldTimer

      Good Christ. They spin everything, don’t they, David? Vicious police homicide beatings of the homeless. Cops illegally using informants in the jails. Jail escapes from maximum security facilities. Cops said to be lying on the stand and withholding material evidence in criminal cases then taking the 5th! These people are worse than a 7 year old who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. And at the salaries and benefits we pay them they’re supposed to solid as rocks when it comes to ethics and taking accountability for their actions. But all we get is one flimsy excuse after another. The makings of a police state. Isn’t there anyone in local elected government office with the gonads to stand up to these adult children and tell them to put their big boy pants on???

    • buzzookaman

      Well said thank you !

  • LFOldTimer

    I would like to talk with a few homeless folks in Fullerton to determine whether things have really changed, or whether it’s all window dressing for public consumption. Next door in Anaheim I understand that they treat the homeless like garbage. I have no idea who this VOC reporter is or his background. But it’s a shame that it took a brutal and vicious homicide at the hands of the police to change things. And it wasn’t just the cops on the street who were responsible. It was the executive management in the FPD. The administrative stuff that happened after the beating to cover up or attempt to downplay the severity of the beating was just as despicable as what happened on the street. And not one executive head rolled over it. In fact, most of those involved in the attempted cover-up were promoted. Same ‘ol same ‘ol. The more things change the more they stay the same.