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Fullerton to hire watchdog to review Police Department

Council seeks to retain Michael Gennaco, who oversees conduct by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, to review not only the fatal beating of Kelly Thomas but to look for systemic problems.

August 13, 2011|By Richard Winton and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Michael Gennaco, who is being sought for a review of the Fullerton Police Department, says: The best department in this country could improve, and that's what we're looking to do. I can't tell you, because I don't know, where Fullerton falls on the range.
Michael Gennaco, who is being sought for a review of the Fullerton Police… (Mark Boster/Los Angeles…)

The Fullerton City Council on Friday directed its attorney to draw up a contract for a police watchdog to review its embattled Police Department in the wake of a homeless man's deadly encounter with six officers.

The council is expected to approve the contract next week with Michael Gennaco to conduct an independent review of Kelly Thomas' death. Gennaco oversees Los Angeles County's Office of Independent Review and scrutinizes the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's actions.

The circumstances surrounding Thomas' death are already under criminal investigation by the FBI and Orange County district attorney's office. Gennaco's review would include not only the Thomas case but a broader look at the department to determine if there are systemic problems.

"The best department in this country could improve, and that's what we're looking to do," Gennaco said. "I can't tell you, because I don't know, where Fullerton falls on the range."

He estimated the contract would cost $50,000 to $70,000.

The council's decision came the same day that an attorney for Thomas' parents questioned how the Police Department could let the six officers involved in the incident view a video of the violence when city officials won't release it publicly because they fear it will taint witnesses.

Fullerton's acting police chief, Kevin Hamilton, acknowledged this week to The Times that the department had allowed the six officers to watch a video of the altercation with Thomas, 37, before writing their reports on the incident.

"They don't want to taint witnesses' testimony and yet they don't seem to have problems with allowing those same tapes to taint the officers' testimony and witnessing of events," said Garo Mardirossian, an attorney for Ron and Cathy Thomas. The attorney filed a legal claim against the city this week signaling the family's intention to file a lawsuit over Kelly Thomas' death.

Hamilton reiterated Friday that supervisors allowed officers to review the tape so they would have a chance to refresh their memories and write accurate accounts of the incident.

But he also said that had the department known the officers would become subjects of a criminal investigation, supervisors might have reconsidered the move.

"In the rearview, with 20-20 hindsight, would we have changed some things? Maybe," he said. "But in the initial phase in the investigation, are we thinking that we're going to be looking at criminal charges of our officers in every case where there's use of force? If that were the case, an officer would never review a videotape when there's use of force, never review an audiotape when there's use of force."

The deadly incident occurred July 5 when officers confronted Thomas while investigating a report of someone trying to break into cars at the downtown transit center. Witnesses said — and the claim filed by the Thomas family alleges — that officers beat and kicked Thomas, who had a history of mental illness, and used a Taser on him multiple times. He died five days later after being removed from life support.

Mardirossian said that although six officers are involved, he does not believe they all took part in the alleged assault.

"We do believe that there were at least three" involved, he said. "We are hoping one or two of these officers will come forward and break the code of silence."

The six officers involved are on paid administrative leave. Police Chief Michael Sellers has taken a medical leave, a move that precludes the city from firing him; he could remain on leave for up to a year while collecting his full salary. Sellers' compensation totals $228,576 with benefits.

Also on Friday, recall proponents led by local blogger Tony Bushala submitted paperwork to the city clerk to begin the recall process against Mayor F. Richard Jones and City Council members Pat McKinley and Don Bankhead, partially because of the Thomas case.

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