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.”