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Embattled Fullerton police chief goes on medical leave

Chief Michael Sellers has been under pressure to step down after six officers were involved in a confrontation with a homeless man, who later died from his injuries.

August 11, 2011|By Abby Sewell and Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times
  • Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers has been criticized for not answering questions about a July 5 confrontation between six officers and a homeless man.
Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers has been criticized for not answering… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers has taken medical leave amid calls for his resignation as six of his officers are being investigated for their role in the death of a homeless man.

Sellers has been under mounting pressure to answer questions about the night of July 5, when officers responding to reports of an attempted vehicle break-in near a bus station confronted Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old schizophrenic homeless man who had become a fixture in downtown Fullerton.

The encounter escalated after Thomas ran. Witnesses said officers beat and kicked Thomas and used a Taser on him several times. He died five days later after being removed from life support.

Photos: Fullerton homeless man

City Council members Bruce Whitaker and Sharon Quirk-Silva have called for Sellers to resign over what they said was a failure to provide some type of narrative to the public about Thomas' death. They also complained that information had been withheld from them, including a surveillance video that captured some of the struggle.

City Manager Joe Felz informed the council Wednesday that Sellers, whose annual salary and benefits total $228,576, was taking a medical leave of absence for an unspecified period of time. Capt. Kevin Hamilton, who heads the department's detective division, will take over command of the department.

City spokeswoman Sylvia Palmer Mudrick said the chief cannot be fired while on medical leave.

Hamilton could not be reached for comment but said in a statement that the city has "very important issues we have to deal with in light of the Kelly Thomas incident, and we will work with investigators from the district attorney's office and the FBI."

City officials have also reached out to Michael Gennaco, a law enforcement consultant and chief attorney for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, to oversee an administrative inquiry into the department's practices.

"We wish Chief Sellers well, and we appreciate his efforts on behalf of the city," Felz said in a statement.

Whitaker declined to comment on the chief's leave, and Quirk-Silva could not be reached. In a previous interview, Whitaker said Sellers "began stonewalling" when he asked the chief for additional information. He said Sellers told him he didn't believe it was his role to provide information about the case publicly.

"I don't think he understands the police chief's responsibility to the community," Whitaker said.

Councilman Don Bankhead, a former Fullerton police officer, said the news came as a surprise. He declined to comment on Sellers' handling of the Thomas case, citing an ongoing investigation, but said: "Up until that point, I think he did a fine job."

Hamilton, along with Sellers, had met with Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, who has been an outspoken advocate on his son's behalf. Ron Thomas called Wednesday's announcement "fabulous" and said he has confidence in Hamilton.

He added: "The mayor's next."

Mayor F. Richard Jones, along with Bankhead and Councilman Pat McKinley, are facing a recall campaign spearheaded by local blogger Tony Bushala, in part because of the Thomas case. The six officers involved remain on paid administrative leave.

Photos: Fullerton homeless man

abby.sewell@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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