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Kelly Thomas and justice in Fullerton

Editorial

The Orange County district attorney's decision to file murder charges against an officer in the beating death of a homeless man is welcome. But the public deserves more answers.

September 22, 2011

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas fulfilled the highest standards of his office by conducting a thorough yet timely investigation into a homeless man's death at the hands of Fullerton police officers. The unusual nature of the charges he has filed — it is rare for a police officer to be charged with murder in the execution of his job, as one of them was — indicates the deep level of consideration that prosecutors gave the case of Kelly Thomas, who was beaten by police in July during an altercation outside a Fullerton bus depot.

Whatever the outcome of the criminal charges, though, they don't bring resolution to the case. Rather, they pave the way for other official actions that should be undertaken by the city of Fullerton.

Rackauckas brought charges against two of the officers involved — the second officer was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force — but determined that four other officers had committed no crime. That does not mean their actions met police standards, and the Police Department should be investigating to determine whether administrative action is warranted.

Beyond that, the troubling circumstances surrounding the beating — what Rackauckas described as the threat by one officer, Thomas' pleas that he couldn't breathe and cries for his father, as well as the original lackluster response of the police chief to Thomas' death — indicate that a more systematic examination of the Fullerton Police Department is in order. A commission that is independent of the department should examine whether the officers involved had histories of excessive-force complaints, whether a relatively few officers are responsible for the bulk of complaints and whether the department has investigated such complaints properly.

Now that his investigation is over, Rackauckas should release the surveillance video of the beating, the coroner's report, the police officers' digital recordings of the altercation and other key investigative information the public has been clamoring for. Though the district attorney's inclination will understandably be to avoid prejudicing future jurors so that the eventual verdict in the case will stand, there are other ways to accomplish that, such as carefully screening the jury pool. Meanwhile, the residents of Fullerton, and the public at large, have been waiting more than two months for answers that should be forthcoming now.

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