Report on Thomas death recommends police reforms

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a three-part series on how the homeless and mentally ill are treated in California. Part One was about the Kelly Thomas beating and death. Part Two was about how L.A. sheriffs deal with the homeless.

Aug. 28, 2012

By Tori Richards

The videotaped police beating death of homeless man Kelly Thomas left a lasting legacy on the Fullerton Police Department that has culminated with sweeping changes in how officers deal with the public.

The department’s dirty laundry was aired this week in a 53-page report that blasted the command staff for protocol that ranged from the appearance of falsifying reports to creating conflict of interests to encouraging a sub-par standard of doing business.

Civil rights attorney Michael Gennaco, who heads the Los Angeles police watchdog group, the Office of Independent Review, listed 59 recommendations for the Fullerton Police Department in the wake of Thomas’ death a year ago July. So far, 34 have been implemented, with several more mandates coming down soon.

The report was unveiled Aug. 21 at a Fullerton City Council meeting that was packed both with Thomas supporters and police union officials.

“My biggest priority since the Kelly Thomas murder is to ensure something like this doesn’t occur again, that we don’t have another incident similar to this,” said Councilman Bruce Whitaker. “We have to get down to the foundational level to ensure that we guard against something like this.”

Thomas, 37, was beaten in the parking lot of a bus depot when he tried to flee from a menacing interrogation from Officer Manuel Ramos. The schizophrenic homeless man had been trying to open car door handles when Ramos arrived with Officer Joe Wolfe; and the pair automatically took a hostile stance rather than engaging in a fact-finding mission.

A total of six officers eventually engaged in the beating and most of them were piled on top of Thomas. He was taken comatose to a hospital, where he died a few days later. Ramos was charged with second degree murder and another officer, Jay Cicinelli, with manslaughter for repeatedly bashing Thomas’ head with a Taser gun to the extent that he lost an eye.

Ramos, Cicinelli and Wolfe have all been fired.

“I was surprised from the beginning of the incident when I learned about it,” Gennaco told “My view is that this never needed to happen.”

Whitaker said he was actually surprised at the substance of the report.

“This one really captured more of the totality of some of the management shortfalls and problems in the department,” he told “It gives us a lot of room for thought to ensure these things are rectified.”

The Beating Seen Around the World

According to Gennaco’s report, “The tragic outcome and the manner in which is death occurred…sent shock waves of concern about the police officers’ actions throughout the nation and beyond. Photographs of the horrific injuries suffered by Mr. Thomas were published, traumatizing the public’s consciousness while contributing to the keen interest in learning how this encounter transpired.”

During his investigation, he interviewed dozens of police officers, command staff and other witnesses. He read reports, watched the beating tape and listened to the digital recording. In the end, the OIR gave a 50 page report to the chief along with three volumes of exhibits and transcripts. The purpose was to determine whether the officers violated policy and to conduct a review of department policies, procedures and training.

Gennaco wrote: “[M]ore can and should be done in reforming the way in which FPD hires and trains its officers, investigates and reviews uses of force, learns from those force incidents, holds its officers accountable and considers improvements in policy. Our recommendations are intended to spark continued reform in each of these areas to continue to move the Department forward in a positive way.”

He had sharp criticism for Ramos, saying his investigation was more akin to banter resulting in a non-productive and unprofessional discussion. At one point, Ramos asked if Thomas spoke English and any other language, sarcastically stating that his partner spoke 10 languages.

“The officers’ initial interaction with Mr. Thomas unnecessarily escalated a situation that, if handled professionally, could have been resolved without significant force,” Gennaco wrote.

When other officers arrived, they should have remembered they were investigating a non-violent offense with no evidence of a crime.

“However, the officers dealing with Mr. Thomas found a way to transform a casual encounter into an incident resulting in death,” Gennaco wrote. “Every patrol officer in America should know that there is a correlation between being homeless and the existence of mental illness. Yet in this case, the attitude adopted by [Ramos] was one of disdain and impatience that was aggravated when Mr. Thomas declined to politely and deferentially answer his questions.”

Gennaco did not dwell on the incident itself, saying that he would let a jury decide the fate of Ramos and Cicinelli. The three remaining officers who are still employed and not charged should be able to stay on the job, he stated.

The Investigation

Much of Gennaco’s criticism was levied at how the department conducted the investigation.

After the incident, the officers were brought to the station and allowed to watch the video in groups and then told to write their reports.

“A view-first policy could create the impression among some that the Department is attempting to clean up its reports so they appear consistent with each other and the video evidence that is present… Creating an exception for police personnel is inconsistent with long-accepted investigative practices,” Gennaco wrote.

One supervisor, in reading a report, changed a numerical range regarding the amount of force to the word “multiple.”

“It should be the goal of any reviewing supervisor to obtain more detail, not less,” he wrote.

Chief Michael Sellers — who has since retired on medical leave — chose not to respond to the station that night when informed of what happened. He then went on vacation. The next day, the department did not issue any statements expressing its concern.

“Rather, the Department seemed to hunker down as the information about the incident became known through other sources and dribbled out information about the event in a rather haphazard way,” Gennaco wrote. “In our view, the Chief of Police needed to address the incident head on and almost immediately.”

Sellers should have gone before the media to express the department’s concern, express regret without assigning blame and communicate apologies to the family. Instead, comments were given by the Public Information Officer, who is a member of the police union that protects the officers.

Another misfortune was that the department began its investigation rather than turning the matter over to the District Attorney’s Office, which handles officer-related deaths. The department needs to have some sort of policy regarding what to do in cases like this, Gennaco wrote.

Gennaco’s Disclosures 

One thing that the OIR found troubling was the department’s complacency. 

The OIR did not find evidence where supervisors and officers conspired to prevent misconduct from coming to light. Rather, the department had a “culture of complacency,” where commanders didn’t have the mechanisms to detect misconduct and didn’t properly address it when it happened.

One comment that was attributed to department leaders was that every organization needed “C players,” and they didn’t put a high premium on quality policing. Also, several leaders were not on speaking terms with each other, and many were in competition for the next chief’s job. One officer remarked that a particular supervisor would “give a goat a good evaluation.”

Despite the many criticisms, Thomas’ father Ron Thomas thinks that the department got an easy pass and more should have been done to the other officers on the scene.

“He seems to be protecting the police quite a bit,” Ron Thomas said of the Gennaco report. “He gave recommendations, but to not find that [Officer Kenton] Hampton should be terminated in of itself. He arrived when Cicinelli did and he had every opportunity to stop that and didn’t do it. He allowed great bodily harm to occur to Kelly. Because his brother in blue was doing it, he allowed it.”

Moving Forward

Sellers is now collecting approximately $300,000 a year in benefits. His interim successor, Kevin Hamilton, is gone too. An administration captain was demoted to lieutenant. And the department has made a lot of changes.

Before the Thomas beating, the department had provided crisis intervention training geared toward the mentally ill homeless to 14 of its patrol officers. Now all of the officers have been trained. And where before one full time homeless intervention officer was employed, it is now two, and the pair work around the clock.

On Friday, the new interim chief released a set of updated policy changes specifically requested in the Gennaco report:

* Major incidents will be recorded; reports will be written before the end of the shift;

* Supervisors shall not make any edits that make the reports less concise;

* Officers should consider using alternatives to force when warranted;

* When one officer sees another using force, it shall be reported to a supervisor;

* The Taser shouldn’t be used to strike someone and officers should stop using it after three tries.

During Gennaco’s interviews, he found many officers who were distressed over what happened and took pride in doing a good job. As a whole, the group was cooperative, while the chief was described as “distant to say the least.”

The report summed it up this way: “[T]he FPD that existed on July 5, 2011 is not the FPD of more than a year later — changed leadership, introspection, and reform have placed the Department in an upward trajectory.”

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