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4 years after Kelly Thomas death, Fullerton police improve relations with homeless, mentally ill

On a warm afternoon at a Fullerton park, a homeless mentally ill man, rolling his head from side to side, carelessly revealed to a pair of officers that he might have a warrant out for his arrest. But he wasn't sure.

“Can you check for me?” the man asked.  

Fullerton police Cpl. Michael McCaskill held back.

“If I check, it might be bad for you,” he warned. “So I’m going to give you a number where you can check.”

This is the type of work four Fullerton police officers assigned to the department’s Homeless Liaison Unit are doing: building relationships with the homeless and mentally ill people in the city and guiding them to services.

Nearly four years after the brutal police beating death of Kelly Thomas — which sparked a national debate on the treatment by police of the homeless and mentally ill — police here have forged partnerships with homeless advocacy groups to connect the people officers meet on the street with service providers. They also participate in regional meetings with other law enforcement and advocacy groups on homelessness.

The reforms came after a series of reviews and reports — both internal and external — about what happened that night in October 2011.

But Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes said Thomas’s death isn’t the only reason the agency has increased its focus on the this vulnerable population.

As Orange County has become more urban, its homeless population has swelled. Hughes said the number of calls police get regarding homelessness in Fullerton has increased from about 1,400 in 2010 to more than 4,000 calls last year. That's something no police agency could ignore.

“Even though, I don’t believe it is necessarily a police issue, it has been put on our shoulders to deal with,” said Hughes. “And so we’re trying to do that as effectively as we possible can.”

Thomas, 37, died in a hospital five days after three officers repeatedly punched and Tasered him while responding to a call about a shirtless homeless man trying to break into cars. He was schizophrenic. The entire episode was recorded on video and audio.

The three officers primarily involved were fired a year later.

Officer Manual Ramos was charged with second-degree murder, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli and officer Joe Wolfe were charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

A jury declined to convict Ramos and Cicinelli in 2013, and the charges were eventually dropped against Wolfe.

“They’re completely exonerated,” said Ron Thomas, the victim's father. “They’re free citizens – the murderers of my son. It just tears me up.”

Thomas, 58, is suing the city, two former Fullerton police chiefs and the officers involved in the beating.

After his son’s death, Thomas lobbied police agencies to mandate mental health training for officers and getting the Orange County officials to adopt Laura’s Law, which gives counties the authority to force certain people with severe mental illness to receive treatment.

All Fullerton police employees, sworn and civilian, were immediately required to complete 10 hours of training recognizing mental health conditions and learn better communication and de-escalation strategies, mainly slowing things down.

New officers are now required to go through 24 hours of mental health training, which includes shadowing officers in the Homeless Liaison Unit.

“Sometimes that’s all it takes is just taking a step back, letting them breathe, and then we talk to them a little bit more,” said Homeless Liaison officer Brad Fernandez.

In response to Kelly Thomas’ death, the city of Fullerton formed a task force on homelessness and mental health services to identify changes needed to avoid another incident.

The task force recommended the police department pair a county mental health clinician with officers to reach out to the mentally ill homeless.

For more than two years, Hector Varela, a behavioral health clinician, has been riding with officers assigned to the agency's Homeless Liaison Unit. Varela said it’s an opportunity to teach police officers some social worker skills that don’t often get taught in the police academy.

“They’ll call me and say, ‘Can you explain to me how the process works, with the clinics, with the psych hospitals?'” he said.

While most progress has been focused on how police treat the homeless and mentally ill, one of the task force's main recommendations is still up in the air: building a year-round homeless shelter with various social services offered there.

“We haven’t done well in creating this key service that would take and find some of the mentally ill homeless and matriculate them into potentially safe housing," said Rusty Kennedy, CEO of the nonprofit O.C. Human Relations, who was also chair of the task force.

Fullerton City Council Member Bruce Whitaker, who was critical of the police department after the Thomas's beating death, said the issue of excessive force has been lost in the discussion.

“There’s this sense of not wanting to see if there, if something improper may have occurred or if there is something that needs to be dealt with down to a base level,” he said.

In 2012, a consultant reviewed the Kelly Thomas case and made 59 recommendations, including the following:

  • Eliminate strikes or blows to the head.
  • No more than three Taser rounds should be used.
  • Tasers should not be used as an impact weapon.
  • Form a chief’s advisory board to give input on police policies.
  • Officers or personnel should not be allowed to view recorded evidence in a group.
  • Interview officers after force incidents before allowing them to watch or hear recorded evidence.

The department has implemented all but a handful of the recommendations. The biggest one still outstanding: The police department should keep records on internal affairs investigations and use of force reports longer than the five years required by state law.

Experts say keeping internal records on misconduct for longer periods of time can help police departments identify patterns of problems with officers and policies.