Thursday, August 11, 2011 | Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers was chief of the Laguna Beach Police Department at the time that city settled a lawsuit over police treatment of the homeless.
The suit, filed in federal court in December 2008 on behalf of five homeless men and women, ultimately led to the city creating a year-round shelter and providing funds to unite some of the city’s homeless with their families.
“We’re the only ones in Orange County who do this,” said Laguna Beach City Councilman Kelly Boyd, who joined the council not long before the suit was filed.
The lawsuit names the city, the City Council and Police Department as defendants but doesn’t specify any city or police official by name. The suit was filed by the Newport Beach law firm of Irell & Manella, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine Law School. (Chemerinsky is also a Voice of OC board member.)
Sellers, on medical leave for his handling of the aftermath of the death of mentally ill drifter Kelly Thomas in Fullerton, could not be reached immediately to discuss his four years as chief in Laguna Beach.
He was appointed chief in Fullerton in May 2009, just as the Laguna Beach case was being settled. He had been chief there since 2005. Before that, he was chief in Seal Beach for nine years.
“The reason the lawsuit came up was we were citing people [for sleeping on sidewalks and beaches] without providing a place for them to sleep,” said Boyd. He estimated the city has about 50 to 75 homeless residents.
Boyd said he didn’t believe there was any connection between the lawsuit and Sellers’ decision to take the position in Fullerton.
“There was never any discussion about that as far as I know,” said Boyd, who was mayor in 2009 at the time of the settlement. “He was offered [command of] a larger force with a bigger challenge. It had nothing to do with the homeless here at all — nothing.”
In a news release the day the lawsuit was filed, the ACLU alleged: “In a long and deliberately coordinated campaign, officers of the Laguna Beach Police Department wake and subject the homeless people to harassment, threats and intimidation; conduct unjustified stops of them that result in middle-of-the-night interrogations, demands for identification and warrant checks; and confiscate their property, among other punitive steps.”
The news release added that “the police have gone so far as to cite, fine and arrest homeless residents for nothing more than sleeping, an involuntary act.”
The Laguna Beach suit followed a federal court decision, which determined that citing homeless people in Los Angeles for sleeping in public was “punishing people for an activity they could not avoid,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of ACLU of Southern California.
The Laguna Beach settlement was reached in February 2009 and became effective in June that year, a month after Sellers moved to Fullerton.
Since the suit, the city has created its year-round Friendship Shelter, which costs $250,000 annually to maintain, Boyd said. The homeless are provided dinner, breakfast and food to take with them for lunch. Buses transport the homeless from the inland shelter to downtown.
There are also free showers and bathrooms. Homeless persons are given other assistance, including help finding jobs, if they are able to work.
The city also has a $10,000 fund for reuniting the homeless with families who are willing to help their homeless relatives, Boyd said.
Villagra said it wasn’t known whether the Laguna Beach Police Department was acting at the urging of the City Council or local businesses when it cited the homeless.