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Fullerton police didn't intend to deceive public in Kelly Thomas' death, report finds

A police watchdog attorney hired by the city says there was no deliberate attempt to make the homeless man, who was beaten by officers, look bad. His father disagrees.

February 22, 2012|By Richard Winton and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Ron Thomas, whose son, Kelly, died after being beaten by Fullerton police officers, tells reporters that he questions the conclusions of a police watchdog attorney's report that found no intent by police to deceive or falsify information. "I don't believe that for a second, he said. All of it was intended to make Kelly look bad.
Ron Thomas, whose son, Kelly, died after being beaten by Fullerton police… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

There is no evidence that Fullerton police deliberately released false or negative information and an unflattering photograph of a mentally ill homeless man who died last year after being beaten by police officers, a police watchdog attorney hired by the city said Tuesday.

The report comes after community leaders and activists accused the beleaguered Police Department of going out of its way to portray Kelly Thomas as a violent street person with a history of run-ins with police before the deadly July 5 confrontation.

Although police released a two-year-old booking photo showing a disheveled Thomas and incorrectly told the media that he had been so violent that two officers suffered broken bones in the struggle, attorney Michael Gennaco said the negative portrayal of the homeless man was unintentional.

"The Fullerton Police Department did not intend to deceive or falsify information," said Gennaco, who operates the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review and who was hired to investigate Thomas' death and the officers' actions.

But Ron Thomas, the homeless man's father, immediately questioned the conclusion.

"I don't believe that for a second," he said. "All of it was intended to make Kelly look bad."

Kelly Thomas' death has become something of a rallying cry in Fullerton, resulting in the police chief stepping down, a City Council recall effort and criminal charges being filed against two of the officers who were involved in the beating.

Gennaco's report, which was released during a well-attended special council meeting Tuesday evening, offered one of the few bright spots for police in the case.

Gennaco said although police normally don't release years-old booking photos, he found that Fullerton did not have such a written policy on old mug shots. He suggested the city develop a policy.

"I have looked at hundreds and hundreds of booking photos and I have yet to find one booking photo that put anyone in a flattering light," Gennaco said in response to the accusation that police had released the old photo to make Thomas look bad.

Further, statements by the department that two officers suffered broken bones was not a deliberate effort to win sympathy for police, he said.

Gennaco did say that police should have been more tentative in their statement and quickly told the public when it turned out that none of the officers suffered broken bones. An initial medical report had suggested that the officers might have suffered fractures.

The report also offered some vindication for Kelly Thomas, who was detained after someone reported seeing him trying to break into cars. Gennaco concluded that Thomas had not stolen mail that police found in a search of his backpack.

Thomas died five days after the July 5 incident, never regaining consciousness after suffering multiple broken bones.

Second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges have been filed against officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, respectively, for their roles in the deadly beating, while four other officers who were present remain on leave.

On Tuesday, Gennaco presented to the council what he describes as an initial report on the Thomas incident. He plans to complete a second report on violations of policy and procedure by the officers.

The council hired Gennaco in August amid rising public criticism of how the Police Department handled the case.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, in charging the two officers in September, revealed that Ramos had put on latex gloves and told Thomas: "These fists are ready to F you up."

Cicinelli allegedly Tasered Thomas four times, kneed him in the head twice and hit him eight times with the Taser, Rackauckas said. Both officers have pleaded not guilty.

richard.winton@latimes.com

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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