July 10 marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who lived with schizophrenia. Thomas was brutally beaten by Fullerton police, reporting to a call made by a local bar manager in Downtown Fullerton.
The Kelly Thomas incident is an example of why Fullerton Police developed new department procedures to modify police encounters with homeless individuals in order to rebuild trust with the community.
Fullerton Police Department recently contracted with the Office of Independent Review, a third-party entity. They evaluate the department’s internal affairs investigations and any force performed by an officer in the field.
This resource is one of several ways FPD has established accountability within the department.
“The Office of Independent Review has been a huge part in collaborating with us, to not just improve on the investigations, but to spot any policies or procedures that we can amend to make our process better,” said Cpl. Billy Phu, the Public Information Officer for the Fullerton Police.
The Fullerton Police Department was also the first department in Orange County to integrate body cameras, Phu said. Officers are required to activate their cameras when they are in contact with the public, as well as when they are engaged in any enforcement activity. This use of technology helps check the behavior of officers while they are on duty.
Thomas died from injuries after he was beaten by the officers who were questioning him. The Fullerton Police Department now integrates the use of force software tracking system. This technology gives early warnings when an officer is using force more than others. When the software flags the officer, the department closely supervises them and investigates the times they used excessive force.
FPD has homeless liaison officers who are specifically trained in an 80-hour course. In this training, they learn de-escalation techniques and how to approach individuals who are in a state of mental crisis. All sworn and non-sworn personnel hired by FPD are also trained if their job description includes contact with the public.
A section of this training includes crisis intervention. In order to prevent escalation in any encounter with someone who has a mental illness, the officer is expected to first understand where the individual is coming from.
The goal is to not aggravate them or make the situation worse than it needs to be, Phu said. He further added that there are times when de-escalation techniques are not always effective.
“Our training includes making sure that we keep not just the member of the community safe and others around them safe, but also ourselves safe,” Phu said.
It will be 10 years since Thomas was beaten to death by six Fullerton police officers on July 5. Jeanette DeMarco, a manager of Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen, had made a call to the Fullerton Police Department, falsely claiming Kelly Thomas was trying to break into cars
The Slidebar had a past issue of Thomas loitering on the business’s premise. Jeremy Popoff, the owner of the bar, believed the presence of homeless people ruined the bar’s image. When the bar called Fullerton police in the past to report on Thomas loitering, officers arrived within a 30 minute time frame.
Popoff instructed his managers one meeting in June of 2011 to “do anything necessary” to keep Thomas off the premises. On July 5, DeMarco followed these instructions when she called the Fullerton Police Dispatcher and falsely claimed Thomas was trying to break into cars across the street.
On arrival, former officer Manuel Ramos met Thomas, under the impression he was the one jiggling car door handles. Ramos became aggressive with Thomas during the encounter, and at one point threatened to beat him with his fists.
This was the beginning of a quickly-escalated 34-minute proceeding, where Thomas was beaten with fists, batons and the back end of a taser gun, as well as stunned several times.
The Fullerton Police Department has implemented procedures and programs since this impactful incident to better support its homeless neighbors and rebuild trust within the community. Since 2012, the department has worked with the Coast to Coast Foundation to better provide for those in need.
Phu commented, “The Fullerton Police Department was one of the first agencies in Orange County who implemented a Homeless Liaison Officer Program.”
Hannah Shields (She/Her) is a journalism major originally from New Mexico and will be transferring to CSULB in the fall. In her free time, she enjoys reading and dancing.