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Fullerton police draw fire for silence in homeless man's death

A City Council member wants the police chief to step down after officials refuse to answer questions about the man who died last month following a violent confrontation with six officers.

August 04, 2011|By Abby Sewell and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Brian Blackman says a prayer at a memorial for Kelly Thomas, who died after a confrontation with Fullerton police last month.
Brian Blackman says a prayer at a memorial for Kelly Thomas, who died after… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Pressure is mounting for the Fullerton Police Department to break its silence and provide some type of narrative about how a homeless man died after a violent confrontation with six police officers last month.

One Fullerton City Council member called for the police chief's resignation Wednesday, criticizing the Police Department for refusing to answer questions about the case or share information with the City Council. A second council member, Bruce Whitaker, said he was also troubled by the lack of information coming from police and urged officials to share more details with the public.

"This, I think, historically is the most tragic thing that has happened in Fullerton, the biggest crisis," said Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who formally asked City Manager Joe Felz to call on the chief to resign. "That means you're out front, giving the public what information you can give."

At Tuesday night's council meeting, hundreds of angry citizens jammed into the overflowing council chambers, criticizing police for the death of Kelly Thomas, 37, and demanding that the city explain what happened. Many called for police Chief Michael Sellers to resign.

"It's a failure of leadership from you, sir, and your department, and it has disgraced the city," Matthew Rowe, a former U.S. Army officer who grew up in Fullerton, told the chief.

On Wednesday, in response to the increasing chorus of public criticism, the department issued a terse statement: "This was tragic for our community. We are in the midst of an investigation."

While the Police Department remained largely silent, the attorney for the six officers spoke out in their defense.

Michael D. Schwartz said Thomas was combative with officers. He said that contrary to the statements of at least one witness, the officers did not use a flashlight as a weapon. Schwartz also said there was "no excessive use" by an officer of a Taser on Thomas — countering statements made by several witnesses.

"Unfortunately, public perception of officers trying to control a combative, resistive suspect rarely conforms to those officers' training, experience, what those officers were experiencing at the time or reality," he said. "This seems to be a case in point."

On the night of July 5, six officers allegedly beat Thomas, a homeless man with a history of schizophrenia, until he was comatose. He died five days later after being removed from life support. Officers had initially approached Thomas at a downtown bus station after receiving a report of someone trying to break into cars in the parking lot. When Thomas tried to run and struggled with officers, the situation escalated.

Council members said they had not been privy to many details of the case, including internal police reports and surveillance video from the bus station that officials with the Orange County district attorney's office say showed much of what took place. The video has not been released.

The calls for Sellers to step down came despite the chief's action Tuesday to place all of the officers involved on administrative leave. One of the officers had been placed on leave shortly after the incident. The others were reassigned to non-patrol duty Friday but not placed on leave until Tuesday. The city has not released their names.

Kelly Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, who met with the chief Tuesday, said he agreed that Sellers should step down.

Sellers has not commented on the calls for him to resign.

The district attorney's office has two dozen investigators working on the case. The FBI has also stepped in, with agents from the civil rights division investigating.

Outside experts agreed that, whatever the circumstances of the incident, the department handled it badly by not communicating with the public sooner.

"If you don't present the department's side of the incident, someone else will fill that news vacuum and tell the story," said retired Los Angeles County sheriff's Cmdr. Charles "Sid" Heal, a veteran of force investigations who has testified in dozens of cases. "…There are some things that could have been explained early in this case without hurting the investigation. A chief can always express concern."

abby.sewell@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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