The Fullerton Police Saga: From Reality TV to Reality?

I don't generally make it a habit of watching other cities' council meetings. It's not a question of lack of interest; I just don't have the time. Initially, I found it a bit surprising that there seem to be a devoted number of people who watch our own council meetings. Not that I want people to be apathetic, mind you, but meetings can be plodding with a lot of filler and not enough pay-off, and who has the time, especially in this day and age of the sound bite?

And yet, while ratings are nowhere near other "reality" shows like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, there is a rawness and authenticity in televised city council meetings which some of those shows lack, not to mention a potential direct effect on those who watch. Local government live feeds can be compelling TV, especially when the issues at stake are of importance and people are unafraid to express their real feelings. One might also suggest that there is a cast of characters every bit as interesting as those on other traditional reality shows.

Maybe if we, a la Ralph Edwards, titled our meetings "This is Your Government" we could attract a few more viewers, especially if people got used to the non-edited format and, by its nature, slower pacing. Or maybe produce an edited version for the post-MTV world? Heck, if we sold advertising, we might even be able to plug a few budget holes...

But "compelling TV" isn't the reason I tuned into the Fullerton city council meeting last Tuesday. The word was out that the name of Kelly Thomas, the homeless, mentally ill man who was beaten to death by Fullerton police officers last July, was going to be "cleared." As the life was being pummeled out of him, Kelly had cried out "Dad!" and "Sorry!" but all his pleas were ignored by the police mob who mercilessly sat on him tasered him and beat him with everything from their gloved fists, to elbows, other body parts and pistol-whipped him with the taser handle. The gruesome video was finally made public this past May, and it leaves little doubt about the need for both justice and sweeping police department reform in Fullerton.

As I had written earlier, Kelly's death set in motion a series of events, and created waves of public sadness, anger and outrage, which led to the recall of three Fullerton council members for their utter insensitivity -- and worse -- an inability to deal with this incident. As often seems to be the case when representatives elected to protect the interests of the People stay in office too long, they "went native" and hunkered down in defense of the City Hall status quo. (And believe it or not, one of the recalled council members, Don Bankhead, is actually running again in the upcoming November Fullerton council election. Bankhead had been recalled from the council once before in the '90s. Talk about bad Reality TV... )

There were different interpretations of the pending announcement, which had been leaked to the press earlier. Some said this would make the case stronger against the two officers, Ramos and Cicinelli, who already had been charged with felonies in connection with the incident; Ramos with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force. Some said it would make it easier to charge Joe Wolfe, one of the officers who landed devastating blows to Kelly, but who as yet inexplicably hasn't been charged with a crime. Some said it would enable the council to fire the three officers at the scene, Hampton, Blatney and Craig, who, also inexplicably, were returned to active duty. Some suggested that it might enable these three officers themselves to be prosecuted for their participation in Kelly's death. Some suggested there were financial motives connected with a civil lawsuit, while some suggested that the announcement by acting police chief Dan Hughes was simply an attempt to manage the situation and for him to try to make his "acting" title permanent. Some suggested that this was simply an effort to show how the Fullerton police department had "reformed" and some suggested a combination of the above.

A lot of personalities, a lot of potentially personal and interested agendas, and a lot of seething anger. Just what would the announcement mean?

As a non-resident who has followed the case from near the beginning, and who felt incredibly moved by Kelly's desperate cries for his father, Ron Thomas, and who has been convinced that the reactions of the authorities were an example of government failing Kelly, failing Kelly's family and failing the People, I watched on Tuesday night. I simply had to.

Acting Fullerton police chief Dan Hughes's statement was short, maybe a minute or two. It suggested that the items Kelly had with him when he was stopped by the police had not been stolen; it suggested that the reports released by the FPD that officers had suffered broken bones as a result of the altercation had been false; and it suggested that the report that Kelly had attempted to break into cars was unsubstantiated. The initial call had been placed by an employee of the local restaurant Slidebar, presumably to get police to remove a homeless man from the vicinity as it could perhaps be "bad for business." (And it should be noted that the Slidebar staff and ownership seems not the least bit contrite for the role they played in setting into motion the events which led to Kelly's murder. Yes, a boycott of these zhlubs is the appropriate response to this brazenness).

But "The Real City Council of Fullerton" on Tuesday, Sept. 18, contained no "I'm Jean Valjean" revelations or mea culpas. Hughes actually placed the blame for the false police report, which suggested that officers had received cracked ribs -- subsequently revealed to be merely strained -- on the hospital. (Nor did Dan Hughes discuss the possibility that in their frenzy of violence towards the 135-pound Kelly, the six burly officers might have injured each other with a few errant punches). The statement most definitely did not, as one of the subsequent speakers suggested, unequivocally state that Kelly was not the aggressor and that he did nothing to instigate the orgy of violence which killed him. It was maybe a 1.7 quake in a landscape where you'd need the Big One to shake things up a bit and allow for a new start.

Over 30 public speakers from the community followed Hughes, most of which spoke on the subject of Kelly or the Fullerton police department, led by Kelly's father, Ron Thomas, who stated that he had waited for his son's name to be cleared for over a year. Others went on to praise the "reforms" which had taken place within the department since Kelly's murder, while others pointed out that there was still much unfinished business.

And then there was John Huelsman, the stepfather of Jay Cicinelli, one of the officers whom the Orange County DA actually charged in connection with Kelly's death. This guy spewed venom like a puff adder surrounded by a gaggle of mongooses. Difficult to say, since he was virtually foaming at the mouth, but his main point seemed to be that the council was bowing to public pressure in getting the acting police chief to "exonerate" Kelly. Aside from calling the council "pathetic specimens of human flesh" he decried the lack of "due process" in the PD's statements that Kelly had done nothing wrong. Forget the fact that there was no indication whatsoever that Hughes's statement was imposed upon him by the council, Kelly Thomas had never been arrested. Had there ever been any intention of doing so, the cops blew that by beating him to death. And we don't happen to have a history of trying the dead in this country. Scapegoating the dead? Well, maybe. But not prosecuting the dead. In other words, this was never a question of due process when it came to Kelly, who never had the benefit of due process himself before he was murdered.

Yet in the sick and twisted mind of John Huelsman, Kelly's "exoneration" presumably would harm his stepson's chances in the pending criminal trial. I guess the warped reasoning behind the tirade was that if Kelly had actually been pawing at car door handles, he would have deserved everything which subsequently befell him. That, of course, is sheer nonsense: Even if Kelly had been burglarizing cars -- which was not the case -- he would not have deserved anything other than to have been arrested in a safe, humane and professional fashion. As it was, Kelly was treated like an object by criminal cops who literally beat the life out of him, robbing him of a humanity they evidently were unable to acknowledge. Strange that in his boundless rage, Huelsman himself refused to acknowledge Kelly's humanity. Well, maybe not...

Considering all that had proceeded it, Huelsman's rant would have been a logical trigger point for some Fullertonian everyman or everywoman to look directly into the council chambers camera and break into "Oh what a circus, oh what a show" from Evita.

By that point the proceedings had strayed far afield from what the evening's focus should have been: pursuing justice for Kelly by making sure that those responsible for his death were held accountable, as well as ensuring that such a brutal, sickening and senseless death at the hands of the cops - or anybody, for that matter -- would never happen again.

Instead, we heard from members of the PD and the public about how acting chief Dan Hughes was a great guy and how he had "reformed" the department and should be able to drop the "acting" from his business card and become Fullerton's full-time Top Cop.

To my knowledge, none of the public employees who spoke out for Hughes had ever taken a public position about the event which sparked the "reform" in the first place, namely, Kelly's murder. And, of course, they completely ignored the fact that no matter how many of the "independent" Gennaco report's recommendations had been adopted, Blatney, Craig and Hampton, three of the officers involved in Kelly's brutalization and death were still pulling paychecks from the taxpayers of Fullerton. How can the residents of Fullerton feel safe -- or that they are getting the best value for their taxpayer dollars -- with these three still on the streets? Clearly, the Gennaco report was whitewash of the sheep-dip variety, attempting the cutesy, clever tightrope walk of trying to have some sort of credibility by acknowledging that a problem existed within the FPD (cue Homer Simpson), without being completely honest about its extent. The report suggests there was a "culture of complacency" but not a "culture of corruption." Hair-splitting? Word-mincing? Sounds like Gennaco knows where his bread is buttered and wants more work, so better not upset the tea cart.

Forget Gennaco. Here's the thing: How can anybody speak of any kind of serious reform within the department as long as three of the officers who were present when Kelly was brutalized to death are still on active duty? Whatever their roles were, they did nothing to stop the beating. In other words, they failed to "serve and protect" one of Fullerton's most vulnerable residents; they ignored his anguished pleas for help.

I don't see how Dan Hughes can or should become the permanent police chief, despite the sycophantic urgings of his underlings. He was a part and parcel of the euphemistic "culture of complacency" that led to Kelly's death. And even if he does happen to be a "good guy," how can anybody seriously speak of true and meaningful reform with an insider at the helm? He may be a "good guy," but Moses he ain't, and not even Moses got to enter the Promised Land.

The ball is now in the Fullerton city council's court. They have the opportunity to take real action and to give Kelly's senseless death some belated meaning. The direction is clear if they can resist the urge to protect the status quo, as the System is wont to do. They need to change the entire culture of their PD, whether it be one of "complacency," "corruption" or a combination of the two. They need to clean house and get a fresh start. Those officers who do not or cannot meet the new standards of an upgraded police department need to go. Quite simply, the residents of Fullerton deserve a police department which understands and is sensitive to the community it serves and protects -- and that would be the entire community, including its most vulnerable members. They need to ensure that they respect -- truly respect -- all the residents of Fullerton, and in so doing, themselves earn the respect of the community. A focus on training and selection of officers would be vital to providing the highest level of service. They need to set the bar high. They need to show true leadership.

There can be no room in a new community-minded police department for any of the officers who were involved in Kelly's death -- or its whitewashing or attempts at cover-up. None. Hampton, Blatney and Craig cannot possibly meet the new standards of a civic-minded police department. They have to go, and it is up to the council to clearly set forth the new standards and expectations for a police department under which Kelly would be alive today. The council needs to lead and take decisive action to restore (or create) trust in the police department.

Ultimately, for all the circus, what's happening in Fullerton is not a reality show. It's about Kelly. It's about his family. It's about the multitude of residents who in different ways are saying that what happened isn't acceptable in their community. It's about those of us who say that what happened isn't acceptable in any community. It's about learning from Kelly's senseless murder. It's about growing and becoming better. And as much as the march towards specific justice for Kelly must be pursued to the finish line, as important as it is for Wolfe to be charged and for all the officers present to be booted off the force and to be held accountable for their actions or lack thereof, this is now about much more than the specific case of Kelly Thomas. This is about learning and, ultimately, healing. This is about ethics and morals. And this is about the realization that there is no finish line for justice. Justice is not just a destination; it's a way of life.

After the upheaval in Fullerton resulting from the sickening and senseless brutalization of Kelly Thomas, the residents of Fullerton deserve justice as a way of life. By cleaning house and adopting clear, transparent, high professional and ethical standards for their police department in no uncertain terms, the Fullerton council can show true leadership and effect true reform; they can give their community a police department to be proud of.

The buck stops with the council, and past councils seem to have been intent on circling the wagons to protect City Hall, to protect the status quo, to protect city staff. Only problem is that city staff's function is to serve the residents -- not the other way around. It's about time that the city council in Fullerton started putting the residents first. If they do, maybe they can turn what up to now has sometimes seemed like a "reality show" into a new reality. Let's hope they answer the call. The people of Fullerton deserve no less.