Kelly Thomas killing aftermath: Reforming how cops deal with the homeless

Editor’s note: Today marks a year since Kelly Thomas, an unarmed homeless man, was severely beaten by Fullerton police. He died five days later. This is the first of a three-part series.

July 5, 2012

By Tori Richards

An outside investigation into whether police officers violated policy leading up to the beating death of homeless man Kelly Thomas will be completed shortly. If consistent with preliminary findings, the investigation will lambast the Fullerton Police Department for a series of blunders.

A investigation has found that, not only have the officers’ actions violated the city’s police policy manual, they are in sharp contrast to another police agency that encounters the homeless at a rate hundreds of percentage points higher, but without a record of violence.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department — a model agency in its dealings with the homeless — has more than 2,000 encounters a month and runs a groundbreaking program that seeks to aid that sector, rather than incarcerate them.

“The International Association of Chiefs of Police gave its highest award to the LASD in 1996 because we partnered law enforcement with mental health and social workers to work together and identify people living on the streets and provide opportunities to them,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker.

That was 16 years ago and LASD is still going strong. Numerous police agencies have followed their lead and initiated their own polices, including Fullerton.

But on July 5, 2011, none of that seemed to matter when Thomas had a fatal run-in with six police officers at a Fullerton bus depot. The 37-year-old man was a schizophrenic who preferred living on the streets to a structured life indoors where he took his medicine.

He was a non-violent person who loved to read, had a great sense of humor with those who knew him and had a quiet and reserved personality for those who didn’t.

On that night a witness saw him trying the door handles of several cars and called police to report the suspicious activity. First on the scene was Officer Manuel Ramos, who could be heard on a police surveillance tape talking about how he had encountered Thomas in the past. Thomas was given a series of commands that he attempted to follow, none of it seeming to appease Ramos, who became increasingly aggressive.

Ramos then asked to look through a backpack that Thomas was carrying and was given permission. Fellow officer Joe Wolfe arrived on the scene and searched the backpack, locating mail addressed to another individual. The two officers conferred and then Ramos donned a pair of black latex gloves, telling Thomas he was going to “F— you up.”

This prompted Thomas to try to escape. But he was tackled by Wolfe, who gave him a baton blow to the leg so severe that the “whack” sound could be clearly heard on digital recorders the officers were wearing. A beating ensued that was magnified when four additional officers arrived and piled onto Thomas so hard that he later died due to lack of oxygen.

All the while, Thomas pleaded for help, repeatedly apologized and cried out in pain.

Murder charge

Ramos was charged with second degree murder. Another officer, Jay Cicinelli, was charged with manslaughter for repeatedly bashing Thomas’ head with a Taser gun to the extent that he lost an eye.

A video and audio tape of the gruesome attack was played in court before a judge, who ordered the pair to stand trial.

Much like LAPD with the Rodney King beating in 1992, Police Chief Michael Sellers did little to respond to public outcry after the incident made national news. And also like the LAPD’s Chief Daryl Gates, Sellers’ actions later cost him his job. Three city council members who participated in a cover-up and defended the officers were recalled in June by voters.

The city hired Los Angeles County’s Office of Independent Review to look at the actions of the officers to see whether they violated police policy. OIR was formed as an impartial investigative agency formed in the wake of LAPD’s Rampart Scandal, where officers falsified reports and engaged in rogue shootings.

Michael Gennaco, OIR’s lead attorney, told that his report should be released within the next week and would be public. A preliminary six-page report was released in February that criticized the police department in two areas.

The first was the release of an unflattering Thomas booking photo from a 2009 trespassing arrest. Gennaco took issue with the fact that the photo — showing a disheveled Thomas — was released at all because the deceased Thomas was a victim rather than a suspect. The photo could have been released “to portray Mr. Thomas in a negative light,” Gennaco wrote.

Secondly, Fullerton PD told the media that two of its officers had suffered “possible broken bones” during the beating when it was later deemed that no such injuries existed.

“The correction caused some members of the public to question the veracity of the Department and created a belief by some that the Department intentionally tried to fabricate or exaggerate the officers’ injuries in an effort to create sympathy for them,” Gennaco wrote.

This over-exaggeration of officers’ injuries was consistent with their actions at the scene when a paramedic arrived and was directed to treat several officers with minor scrapes instead of tending to a mortally wounded Thomas crumpled in a heap nearby.

The Fullerton Police Department Policy Manual

Section 464 of the manual, titled “Homeless Persons,” is a 2-1/2 page edict meant to “ensure that personnel understand the needs and rights of the homeless and to establish procedures to guide officers during all contacts with the homeless.”

The tone of the manual is written in a manner to aid the homeless rather than treat them as suspects.


“Officers are encouraged to contact the homeless for purposes of rendering aid, support and for community-oriented policing purposes. Nothing in this policy is meant to dissuade an officer from taking reasonable enforcement action when facts support a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. 

“However, when encountering a homeless person who has committed a non-violent misdemeanor and continued freedom is not likely to result in a continuation of the offense or breach of the peace, officers are encouraged to consider long-term solutions to problems that may relate to the homeless, such as shelter referrals and counseling in lieu of physical arrest.”

In Thomas’s case, he was not involved in any type of violent offense, so he would fall under the above mandate to be referred to a shelter rather than beaten up and killed, said attorney Brian Gurwitz, a former prosecutor.

“Trying to open car doors could be auto tampering, which is a misdemeanor,” said Gurwitz, who has been retained by Thomas’s mother. “The papers he had appeared to be junk. Under no circumstances would it be violent, even possibility of stolen property would be non-violent. No DA would ever file this as a felony.”

It turns out that the mail Thomas was carrying that apparently escalated the events was later found to be discarded in the trash by its owner. But Ramos and his colleagues did not take the time to determine this before the beating began.

“He liked to read,” said Thomas’ father, Ron. “He had a Bible with him that he always read. The letters he found, they were just something else for him to read.”

Another mandate of section 464 calls for the appointment of a homeless liaison officer. The department has employed Cpl. John “J.D.” DeCaprio in this position for several years and he has built relationships with many in the homeless community, including Thomas.

DeCaprio has even been known to spend his own money to buy toiletries and clothes for many of the people he encounters on the streets, said Fullerton police spokesperson Jeff Stuart.

Unfortunately for Kelly Thomas, the city only has one such officer assigned to this duty and J.D. wasn’t working the night of July 5.

“DeCaprio said he never had to put cuffs on [Kelly] and that he always did everything that DeCaprio wanted him to,” Ron Thomas said. “They had a good relationship. DeCaprio did tell me that if he was on duty that night, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Section 464 is summed up with this passage under the subhead of “Other Considerations”:

“Homeless members of the community will receive the same level and quality of service provided to other members of the community. The fact that a victim or witness is homeless can, however, require special considerations for a successful investigation and prosecution.”

A Sharp Contrast: the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Back in 1995, the homeless population was a huge problem in Los Angeles. They blocked businesses, aggressively panhandled and created an environmental hazard. Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker was then a sergeant at the West Hollywood station and had a real empathy for that segment of the population.

The city of West Hollywood got a matching funds federal grant and started a community policing program as a way to offer help. The Sheriff’s Department surveyed the public to find out issues of concern. Then it partnered with a local shelter to locate, identify and assist homeless who were willing to accept help.

“Those who were creating the nuisances were a small percentage causing the majority of the complaints,” Parker said. “It’s very expensive to incarcerate them as opposed to sending them to a homeless shelter. None of us enjoyed taking people to jail for panhandling. What we’re trying to do is focus on the root of the problem.”

Working in teams with mental health professionals and social workers, the deputies were so successful that the program soon became a pet project of Chief Lee Baca, who would later become sheriff. He expanded it countywide and also focused on rehabilitation efforts if a homeless person was incarcerated.

“The first two minutes after they walk out [of jail] are the most important ones; it decides which way they are going to go,” Parker said. “We have arrangements with veteran and volunteer organizations to pick up inmates willing to change their lives and take them to shelters so they can work on getting back into society.”

In 2000, Baca initiated a program to cut through the bureaucracy to help the homeless obtain Social Security cards and identification cards so they would be able to work.

“Sheriff Baca has taken a lead on this; he wants to address this situation so that it doesn’t involve incarceration,” Parker said.

COMING ON MONDAY: The mentally ill homeless: A problem the state of California has absconded and left not to medical personnel but to local law enforcement.

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