Six Fullerton cops, responding to a phone call alleging that someone in the downtown area might be breaking into cars, approached a 130-pound homeless man named Kelly Thomas, grabbed his backpack and, according to eyewitnesses, began Tasering him and beating him into a pulp. He died a few days later at a local hospital.
According to eyewitnesses, Thomas, although schizophrenic, did nothing to warrant arrest, let alone a savage beating. He was a local fixture around the bar scene, a gentle figure who bummed cigarettes and slept in the park. Videos made by bystanders showed pure aggression on the part of the cops, while locals expressed horror and Thomas cried out for his dad as he was being beaten.
In my column about this apparent act of police thuggery, I quoted Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, who calls California a "secret police state." Some readers no doubt find this description to be too much for their tender sensibilities. So I want to recount some of the ways the authorities have behaved during and after the incident, and then ask this question: Does this typical behavior better reflect the policies of a free society or a police state?
1. Officers responded to a nonviolent call with overwhelming violent force.
2. Police confiscated the video camera of a bystander who was standing nearby taping the ongoing incident, thereby limiting the ability of the public to see what actually took place and obliterating the freedom of the person doing the taping.
3. The offending officers were allowed to review the official videotape recorded on a bus-depot camera before filing their police reports. This allowed them to get their stories straight before going on the record. Here we see a horrendous double standard – the rules for the authorities are different than the rules for the subjects.
4. The district attorney’s office has refused to release the official video, arguing that it would taint a jury.
5. The DA has been busy downplaying the incident in the local media, arguing, for instance, that the police had no intent to kill, as if anyone really thought they had premeditated a murder. DA’s rarely if ever file charges against police officers for police brutality. I’ve dealt with this particular DA in the past during other use of force issues and he always is quick to exonerate any police misbehavior in such cases. The DA doesn’t seem concerned that his statements would taint a jury.
6. The law is written in such a way that even if the DA were serious about cracking down on police brutality, he would be hard-pressed to do so. An officer is allowed to use deadly force if he believes that his life were in danger, and of course such officers always claim that their lives were in danger, no matter the facts involved in the case.
7. The police department has released disinformation to suggest that Thomas got what was coming to him. The Fullerton PD spokesman released a report claiming that the officers had suffered broken bones in the scuffle, which was not true. The department released a menacing photograph of Thomas that does not actually appear to be Thomas, according to those who know him.
8. It took the department 30 days to put these thugs on administrative leave – i.e., paid vacation. The department refuses to release the name of the killers. State law makes it illegal for the city to release any information about the accused killers and their previous misbehavior.
9. The six Fullerton PD officers refuse to be interviewed by the DA. Unwilling to deal with the tough questions, the police chief went out on medical leave – the precursor to a tax-funded disability retirement. Try going on paid medical leave if you were too stressed after the police were questioning you!
10. After dozens and then hundreds of local residents showed up downtown to calmly and peacefully protest the killing and the cover up, city officials described them as a lynch mob and as terrorists. So officials act like a true mob and like true terrorists and are coddled by officials, but when the public gets upset and acts in a calm and appropriate and All American manner, they are depicted that way.
11. One councilman, a former police chief who hired the Fullerton cops in question, said on national television that the police did not necessarily kill Thomas. He said that the facial injuries – i.e., his face was beaten so severely it was not recognizable as Thomas – do not mean that the police caused serious harm to Thomas. He said the public shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what killed Thomas. Thomas was walking around and healthy, six cops beat and Tasered him and then he dies. But according to officials, that doesn’t mean that the cops had anything to do with the death. What would the police have said had a gang beaten up a cop who later died?
12. The local civil rights activists, who are paid by local cities and police departments to fight hate crimes and stand up for the downtrodden, are calling for more training of the police, more taxpayer-funded Kumbaya sessions and for more "outside" investigations handled by people with a history of whitewashing police abuse.
13. Some in the local mainstream media have been making excuses for the cops and making fun of the local blog that has done all the legwork on this story.
14. The state attorney general, who could be called in to investigate the killing, is being advised by one of the most thuggish police union officials I’ve ever encountered. She is trying to earn more police support as she potentially seeks higher office.
15. Police officials and unions are of course circling the wagons and claiming that we cannot judge the split-second decisions made by officers in the heat of the moment, even though six large armed police were up against one tiny unarmed man and it was the police who started the altercation – one that lasted much longer than a few split seconds.
16. The police union hired an attorney to send a threatening letter to a blogger who had been covering the incident, knowing full well that most bloggers don’t have the wherewithal to fight these threatened SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) suits.
17. FYI, Fullerton police have been subject to various scandals involving officers – ranging from theft to drug use to sexual misbehavior in a squad car and official sources have offered a variety of excuses, mostly related to the stresses of the job. There’s a clear pattern of special treatment for officers compared to the treatment received by the public.
The only difference in Fullerton from the many other instances of police thuggery I have covered in California is that the public doesn’t seem to be buying the excuses and seems genuinely mad at what has happened.
But a recent story in Sacramento reports on how Elk Grove police fired an assault rifle at point-blank range at a handcuffed man in the back of a patrol car. The district attorney, of course, found that the officer feared for his life and did nothing wrong.
And reports this week show that BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) officials shut down all cellular service after believing that people angry at the police killing of a man on July 3 would be using their cell phones to organize a protest. Perish the thought that anyone be allowed to hold a non-violent protest on BART property.
This is the same BART where an officer, Johannes Mehserle, shot to death an unarmed and prostrate man named Oscar Grant in the back. Mehserle received a two-year slap-on-the-wrist sentence for involuntary manslaughter and has been treated as a martyr by police unions angered that a DA would dare prosecute a killer cop. This was the first time in California history that a cop was prosecuted for murder for an on-duty killing, in case any readers think that this prosecution undermines my point.
Meanwhile, police are increasingly arresting onlookers who videotape police doing such things. Without the videotape Mehserle would be on the job and there would be no angry Fullerton residents protesting. No wonder the cops are grabbing our cameras.
Efforts in the Legislature to open up police records go absolutely nowhere as union-loving Democrats and law-and-order Republicans unite to do the police bidding. The courts continue to rule in favor of police secrecy, as this case involving cell phones and this one involving disciplinary records reveal. City council members not only fear the political power of local police unions, but retired police officers frequently win posts on the City Council.
Since 9/11, the public generally sides with the cops, especially in Republican areas such as Orange County.
Police can use deadly force at will. They can confiscate cameras and keep their own official videos away from public view. They can intimidate and harass writers. They can count on their departments to cover up for them. They know the "outside" investigators, mostly their colleagues and allies in the law enforcement community, will do the same for them. They can count on the media and the public to excuse them.
Yet some people blush at the term Police State.