Previously Sealed Report Sheds New Light on Thomas Beating

Three of the four Fullerton police officers primarily involved in the beating death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas violated a series of department policies, including use of force, according to an internal affairs investigation report obtained by Voice of OC.

The actions of former Officers Manuel Ramos and Joseph Wolfe and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli are detailed in the 57-page report written by Michael Gennaco, who was hired by the city to conduct an independent review following Thomas’ beating on July 5, 2011.

In criticizing the force used by Ramos and Wolfe, the internal affairs report said that before the beating began, the officers apparently did not consider Thomas a threat.

“Both Ramos and Wolfe were experienced officers. The risk of injury to citizens and officers was relatively low and the risk of escape, while it existed, would not have necessarily presented a great public safety threat to the community based on the initial observations of the responding officers,” the internal affairs report said.

While the beating began before Cicinelli arrived, he received the report’s most detailed criticism, including a rebuke that his statements like “beating the shit” out of Thomas “convey (a) savage person who is willing to abuse his position of authority to exact street punishment to citizens he encounters.”

The report, finished in April, 2012, also said 11 of the 13 officers who arrived at the scene violated department procedures in some fashion, primarily by failing to turn on voice recorders that were critical to determining what happened.

(Click here to read the report.)

Among other things, audio recordings were combined with a silent video of the beating by the district attorney’s office to reconstruct events. To view the video, click here.

Thomas, 37, lapsed into a coma following the beating and died five days later. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charged the three officers with felonies in connection with his death, but a jury acquitted Ramos and Cicinelli and charges against Wolfe were then dropped. Cicinelli is seeking his job back and his case currently is in arbitration.

At least five of the officers left the department in the wake of the beating. Additionally, three Fullerton city council members were recalled, the police chief left, and reforms were undertaken to erase the “culture of complacency” that a separate Gennaco investigation determined dominated the department.

The city also helps pay for Behind the Badge OC, a publication produced by a public relations firm and sent to some Fullerton residents that contains primarily positive accounts that police have with the community.

Thomas was a local drifter who often hung out in downtown Fullerton. His beating death drew national attention to the plight of mentally ill homeless men and women and the lack of training for police who deal with them. During the beating, he can be heard yelling that he couldn’t breathe and then calling out for his father.

A federal civil rights case is still pending and the trial in a civil suit against the city and police executives brought by Kelly Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas, is scheduled to begin later this month.

The internal affairs report goes into detail about what each of the 13 officers who responded to the bus station that night did, particularly Cicinelli.

First, he used his Taser and, when that didn’t cause Thomas to stop struggling, he smashed Thomas in the face with the plastic weapon, according to the report. He also hit Thomas twice in the head with his knee. The coroner said Thomas died of suffocation from having his chest compressed and from injuries to his face.

“Considering what Cicinelli was faced with when he arrived on scene
and the presence of three additional officers, his deployment of two knee strikes to Thomas’ head was unnecessary and unreasonable,” the report stated.

Cicinelli was justified in trying to use the Taser, the report said, but when that didn’t work “Cicinelli’s use of the Taser as an impact weapon to Thomas’ face is objectively unreasonable.”

The report points out contradictions between the reports Cicinelli wrote up after the beating and his statements during his interview with internal affairs.

“In his report, Cicinelli wrote that the reason he used the taser in that manner was to end Thomas’ resistance,” according to Gennaco’s report. “(But) in his interview, Cicinelli’s ‘justification’ shifted to the alleged grab of his Taser for the use of the head strikes. Yet that justification is not articulated in his report or his comments about the force immediately after the incident.”

Here are some of Cicinelli’s comments highlighted in Gennaco’s report:

“I mean he was tossing us around like we were nothing and that was after was thumping the shit out of him…We ran out of options so I got the end of my Taser and I probably just smashed his face to hell…I fucking beat him probably twenty times in the face with this taser.”

The report went on to say Cicinelli’s comments, “while not necessarily ones of bravado, strongly suggest that the head strikes were prompted by Thomas’ resistance as opposed to his grab of the Taser.”

“The mental imagery that such statements convey is a savage person who is willing to abuse his position of authority to exact street punishment to citizens he encounters,” the report said.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.