Fullerton, CA — Four years ago, Kelly Thomas – a homeless, mentally ill man from Fullerton, California — was beaten to death by police officers while he cried out piteously for his father. A newly released “systematic review” of the Fullerton PD depicts an institutional culture in which police administrators are dismissive of excessive force complaints by citizens, and broadly indulgent of misbehavior by officers.
Officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cincinelli, two of the six officers who participated in the beating, were acquitted of second-degree murder on January 13, 2014. Ramos, who was subsequently fired by the department and no longer clothed in “qualified immunity,” was recently arrested on a domestic violence charge.
According to the report, police, who were responding to a family disturbance, arrested Manuel Ramos on July 16 after he allegedly assaulted a woman in the 3600 block of W. Oak Avenue. Ramos was booked for misdemeanor domestic violence and has since posted $10,000 bail. He’ll likely attempt to paint he female as a crazed and violent woman who caused him to “fear for his life.”
The Fullerton PD claims to have instituted key reforms with respect to the training officers receive in dealing with homeless and mentally ill individuals, the use of Digital Activated Recorders, and in processing citizen complaints. The salient lesson taught by the Kelly Thomas case, however, is that officers who engage in lethal abuse of force can successfully claim that their actions are in harmony with department “policy.”
Michael Gennaco, who conducted the review on behalf of the California-based OIR Group (an auditing firm that contracts with the Justice Department) exonerated the Fullerton PD of “corruption,” describing the department’s documented problems as the product of a “culture of complacency.” None of the 59 proposed reforms contained in the 53-page report — which was made public as a result of a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Thomas — addresses the need to make individual police officers personally liable for injuries inflicted as a result of unlawful conduct. While paying the cheapest form of lip service to the principle of accountability, the document focuses on improving the professionalism and efficiency of the department, while treating officer misconduct as a potential threat to the personal safety and career prospects of the offending officer.
“Failure to hold officers sufficiently accountable for misconduct provides license to those officers to continue their miscreant ways,” writes Gennaco. “Giving an officer a `break’ ends up working to the disadvantage of the Department, erodes trust in the community that the Department has the fortitude to address misconduct, and actually does a disservice to the offending officer. When transgressions are allowed to slide, it increases the likelihood that the officer will offend repeatedly, causing more serious jeopardy for that officer down the road.” (Emphasis added.)
Of immeasurably greater importance is the fact that protecting “miscreant” officers results in greater jeopardy for the public they supposedly serve. This is compellingly illustrated by the behavior of Manuel Ramos, the Fullerton PD Officer who accosted Thomas, taunting and provoking him and eventually leading the assault that destroyed the victim’s face and left him with fatal brain damage as a result of prolonged chest compression and oxygen deprivation. Taken to a hospital after being beaten into a coma from which he never awoke, Thomas was removed from life support five days later.
Two weeks before the July 5, 2011 assault on Thomas, Ramos was involved in a what was described as a similar attack on 58-year-old Mark Edwin Walker. According to a lawsuit filed by the victim, Officer Ramos approached Walker in the parking lot of a pharmacy and demanded to know what he was doing. Walker explained that he had just filled a prescription. Ramos, apparently believing Walker to be intoxicated, demanded that he get out from behind the wheel, place his hands on his car, and undergo a pat-down search.
“Why are you hassling me?” Walker demanded of the assailant, who replied by throwing him to the ground and stomping on his left hand. At one point, as he was cuffing Walker, Ramos warned that he was “going to break your f*****g arm.” After being taken to the station and booked on a charge of public intoxication, Walker was released and forced to walk four miles to his car. The charge was dropped a few weeks later.
Fourteen days after that incident, Ramos responded to a report that Thomas – who was well-known to the department – had been behaving suspiciously in a parking lot.
As Gennaco relates, Ramos and the other Fullerton PD officers who arrived on the scene “found a way to transform a casual encounter into an incident resulting in death…. [T]he attitude adopted by the primary officer [Ramos] was one of disdain and impatience that was aggravated when Mr. Thomas declined to politely and deferentially answer his questions.”
“Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this episode … is that it all could well have been avoided had the responding officers handled the initial interaction with Mr. Thomas in a more professional and intelligent way,” Gennaco continues. While taking note of the victim’s “lack of complete cooperation, his profanity, [and] unprofessional response to the officers,” the OIR Group report chastely avoids a description of Ramos’s language and demeanor.
“Now, you see these fists?” Ramos snarled at Thomas, as he snapped on latex gloves in anticipation of imposing “street justice” on the cowering homeless man. “They’re going to f**k you up.”
Corporal Stephen Rubio, who trained officers for the Fullerton PD, later testified that this vulgar threat of criminal violence was a “conditional threat” and was entirely in harmony with the department’s use of force policy. The same was true of the blows administered to Thomas’s head – some of them involving Officer Jay Cincinelli’s use of a Taser as an impact weapon. These potentially lethal strikes – inflicted on a man who repeatedly apologized while crying out for his father – were described as a “distraction” technique.
“We ran out of options,” Cincinelli later explained, “so I got the end of my Taser and I … just smashed his face to hell.” Numerous eyewitnesses testified that the attack continued long after Thomas was inert and motionless.
The department’s initial reaction to the grotesque beating of Kelly Thomas combined indifference and reflexive dishonesty. The department’s Public Information Officer, who served double duty as a leader in the local police union, told the media that one of the responding officers suffering “broken bones” – a fabricated claim intended to portray Thomas as violent and dangerous.
As facts challenging the official narrative were made public, “the Department seemed to `hunker down’…. [A]s the incident continued to crescendo, the Chief of Police decided to leave for his pre-planned vacation.”
The “complacency” displayed in response to the beating of Kelly Thomas was typical of the department’s reaction to excessive force episodes. The priority was always to dispose of the matter quickly and with minimal damage to the officer’s career.
“In one force review, the subject upon whom force was used was questioned about that force by the officer who used force on him,” records the Gennaco report. This arrangement “does not advance general principles of objective fact finding and creatives a coercive environment that will likely chill or distort the witness’ response and should be expressly prohibited.”
For anybody who believes that police should be accountable to the public, an admonition of that kind merely states the obvious.
Fullerton PD’s approach to reviewing excessive force complaints is “confined to determining whether the force itself was in policy,” continues the report. Department policy provides officers with great discretion regarding the use and escalation of force, and treats the rights and interests of the “suspect” as a peripheral concern – even when it is clear that “policy” has been violated.
“Several years ago, several FPD officers were found to have violated policy and the values of the organization as a result of on-duty misconduct in dealing with a citizen,” narrates the report. “The misconduct was so aberrant and distasteful that a case could well have been made for termination of at least some of the participants, While each received discipline for their violations of policy, none were terminated, and several of the involved officers ran into further trouble as their careers progressed.”
More recently, “an officer was found to have subjected a handcuffed arrestee to excessive force. However, instead of presenting the matter for potential criminal prosecution and/or terminating the officer, former police managers decided to award [sic] him merely a reprimand for his misdeeds.”
Once again, since state law will not allow disclosure of the details of such cases, the public cannot learn the identity of such repeat offenders until after an incident such as the Kelly Thomas beating. This helps explain why investigations of abuse complaints are, at best, perfunctory.
“Witness interviews were not transcribed in any of the force investigations that we reviewed,” recounts the report. The Fullerton PD, like many other agencies in California, “`purges’ its force reports and internal affairs investigation[s] after five years.” In addition, California state law “prohibits disclosure of administrative proceedings involving police officers, [and] there are limitations about what can be disclosed regarding the outcome.”
Apart from the common privileges that attach to police officers in the conduct of their duties, the Fullerton PD is broadly indulgent of off-duty misbehavior as well. The report refers to an episode in which “two now retired high-level command personnel were involved in an alcohol-related `horseplay scuffle’ at a bar in Fullerton. In that case, the immediate response was to do nothing formally to address the incident.” This typified an official culture in which “other transgressions by upper level command staff went largely unaddressed.”
In another instance, “an officer was hired despite a prior arrest for driving under the influence. While still on training, the officer was again arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.” During his training and probationary period an officer can be dismissed for such behavior, but in this case the obviously addiction-prone officer was hired and eventually “used City funds to fuel his drug dependency habit….”
In this case, the report discloses, there were indications “that the weak response of the Department to the earlier incidents was, in part, a result of the officer’s family connections to the law enforcement community.” The real tragedy, apparently, was that “his drug dependency habit … finally ended his law enforcement career.” The account provided by the report doesn’t devote a syllable to the danger that criminally inclined officer posed to the citizens he encountered.
In his closing arguments during the trial, police union attorney John Barnett, who represented Ramos, depicted the terrified, unarmed, 160-pound Thomas as a threat to the community. Appealing to the latent authoritarianism of the Orange County jury, Barnett insisted that by provoking a confrontation with Thomas and then beating him into a coma, Ramos “did everything he could to keep the community safe…. Officer Ramos had a right to do exactly what he was doing.”
Pretending that Thomas was a violent, deranged man possessed of superhuman strength, Barnett insisted that the six officers who beat him to death were in the “fight of their lives.” He succeeded in convincing the jury that the gang assault on Thomas was what the Gennaco report describes as an “awful but lawful” use of force.
“These peace officers did their jobs — they did what they were trained to do,” declared Barnett. “Their actions were consistent with their training, and nobody disputes that.”
That conclusion was certainly not disputed in the OIR Group’s “independent” review of the Fullerton PD – and the institutional protocols that led to the unjustifiable killing of Kelly Thomas remain firmly in place.