Kelly Thomas in a 1998 family photo. Thomas had an encounter with Fullerton…
Before reaching the decision this week to charge a Fullerton police officer with murder, Orange County prosecutors re-created his fatal encounter with a homeless man from dozens of witness statements, footage from security cameras and cellphone videos.
The piece of evidence that sealed the decision, however, came from an unexpected source: the officer himself.
An audio recorder carried by Officer Manuel Ramos captured a chilling exchange between him and Kelly Thomas, in which Ramos told the mentally ill man that he was going to beat him. Those irrefutable words, said Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, proved Ramos was intent on hurting the defenseless Thomas and led Rackauckas to file the second-degree murder charge.
Fullerton is one of a growing number of police agencies around the country that require officers to use audio or video devices to document their interactions with people. Although the technology most frequently helps exonerate officers accused of misconduct or provides evidence during a trial, police observers say, the Fullerton case is a somewhat rare and dramatic illustration of how officers' self-surveillance can serve as a powerful check on police.
"It can cut both ways," said Merrick Bobb, president of the Police Assessment Resource Center. "A recording allows the community and the department to see or hear what happened for themselves, instead of being forced to choose between believing the officer or the citizen. In departments that are trying to rebuild trust with the communities they serve, that can be a very effective tool."
Ramos, 37, turned on the department-issued digital recorder strapped to his equipment belt when he responded to a call of suspicious behavior at a bus depot shortly after 8:30 p.m. July 5. The department's policy calls for officers to activate their recorders, about the size of a deck of cards, almost any time they engage someone while on duty. The policy has been in place for over a decade, Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said.
The 10-year police veteran found Thomas in the parking lot. Ramos, according to the district attorney's account, did not search Thomas for weapons because it was clear he was unarmed. Ramos grew increasingly hostile as a disoriented Thomas struggled to follow his commands.
At one point, Ramos was seen on video footage of the incident standing over Thomas and pulling on latex gloves.
"See my fists?" Ramos is heard saying on the recording. "They are getting ready to f— you up."
Investigators' ability to match what Ramos said to what was seen on the various videos was a critical part of the deliberations about what charges to pursue. At a news conference Wednesday, Rackauckas called Ramos' words, "a turning point — a defining moment."
"Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas that this encounter had changed from a fairly routine police detention into an impending beating at the hands of an angry police officer," he said.
Ramos and several other officers went on to beat Thomas with a baton, to punch and knee him repeatedly as he was pinned down, to shock him multiple times with a stun gun, and to strike him in the face with the stun device eight times, Rackauckas said. After several days in the hospital, Thomas died of a crushed thorax, Rackauckas said. No traces of drugs or alcohol were found in his body.
Along with the second-degree murder charge, Ramos was accused of involuntary manslaughter and remained in custody in lieu of $1 million bail after his arraignment was postponed Wednesday. If convicted, he could face a life prison term. A second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force; Cicinelli faces a maximum prison term of four years. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $25,000 bail.
Like many other police departments, Fullerton once installed video recorders in its patrol cars. Department officials, however, found the cameras too limited since they captured only encounters that occur in front of the vehicle, Goodrich said. Instead of continuing to invest in expensive in-car cameras, Fullerton police officials opted to switch to audio recorders that generally cost a few hundred dollars each.
Despite the limitations, many police departments have continued to use in-car video systems. After years of funding and technical delays, the Los Angeles Police Department is in the midst of a multiyear, $20-million plan to install cameras in all of its patrol cars. The LAPD does not require officers to carry audio recorders.
There are no definitive figures on the number of agencies with mandatory recording policies. There are several in California, including the cities of Irvine, Riverside and Sierra Madre. Puma, the company that manufactures the recorder used by Fullerton, lists about 200 law enforcement agencies as clients on its website.
In recent years, a few companies have begun selling small video cameras that hook over an officer's ear or attach to his or her chest.