Relatives of Kelly Thomas attend a vigil on the one-year anniversary of… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)
In a rare endorsement for the Fullerton Police Department, dozens of residents stood before the City Council and passionately urged it to put off any discussion of disbanding the beleaguered agency.
The Fullerton City Council voted 3 to 2 to reject a proposal to explore replacing the century-old Police Department with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
The vote just before midnight on Tuesday was a sign of how important local law enforcement is to its residents — even as it continues to respond to criticism since last year's fatal beating of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man. The beating and its aftermath led to two officers being charged in connection with the killing and three council members being recalled and replaced.
"You cannot replace people who have grown up here," said Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva to loud applause. "I completely support the Fullerton Police Department."
She said the city invested heavily in the department and, at the very least, she wanted voter approval for any move to disband it. Councilmen Doug Chaffee and Greg Sebourn joined her in opposing the move.
Two council members voiced support for the analysis. Councilman Bruce Whitaker said the community needed to allow the study so officials can explore financial options.
"Sometimes you receive a quote but that does not mean you are buying a car," he said. He said the driving force behind the proposal is the $37 million required to operate the 144-officer department and potential city deficits.
Councilman Travis Kiger, one of three new council members elected in June, added, "I answer to the taxpayers in Fullerton and I owe it to them to see our finances are in good shape."
The vote came after dozens of residents, many wearing "I Heart Fullerton Police" T-shirts, took to the microphone to support the department.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," said John Schaefer, a Fullerton resident and former police chief in Los Angeles County. "You want to fix the department, fix the department."
Dr. Stewart L. Shanfield, head of surgery at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, said he has been "touched" over the years by the officers' community involvement.
"They all run toward danger, not away from danger.... Outsourcing would be a terrible mistake," he said.
Barry Coffman, president of the Fullerton Police Officers' Assn., reminded the council that officers have a contract through 2014 with a year-extension option.
Some of the department's most vocal critics, members of a group called "Kelly's Army," also endorsed the need to keep the department. "I am waving a white flag. We just need to get along," Christine Walker said.
Thomas was beaten on July 5, 2011, with fists and the butt of a stun gun in an incident that was captured on video and in audio files. He died five days later. Apart from the two officers charged in Thomas' death, three other officers quit the force in the face of termination proceedings and the police chief left the department. Three of the city's five council members were recalled in June.
Although the newly formed council will not pursue the study to outsource services to the Sheriff's Department, it did vote Tuesday to have the police chief report directly to the council instead of to the city manager.