A Civil Libertarian Review of the Kelly Thomas Video


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[Warning: don't read this if you want to be a juror in the trial of the officers accused of killing Kelly Thomas.  I'm not kidding.  As for the rest of you -- settle in, it's going to take a while.]

Kelly Thomas and Officer Ramos in surveillance footage

Fifteen minutes later, one would be headed towards death and one towards murder charges.

Children should not watch the Kelly Thomas video, YouTube has advised, as have many blogs and commenters, me included when I previously published it here.  I’m going to amend that advice slightly.  Children should not watch the second half of the tape, but by sixth grade or so they should be able to watch the first half, because they should see how police interactions with the public can go.  Specifically, they can see how, in what started as a normal interaction, police demand compliance that befits their role as the muscle behind city government.  (They’ll also see how police use subterfuge to serve another role, as spies.)  And they’ll see the terrible potential consequences of arresting someone.

Policing is a necessary part of society; if public actors don’t do it then private ones will.  (Some call policing a “necessary evil,” but that seems unfair.  My friend Paula Williams says that in her part of Fullerton, the problem greater than brutality is the absence of police presence and availability – which, I’d say that to the extent it comes from social policies that value some people’s property and lives more than others, verges more towards being evil.)

What I’m going to do here is review the Kelly Thomas video, noting where I am by time stamp, from a civil libertarian legal perspective, noting the things that struck me on my earlier viewing, and raising some questions – some of them tougher than people might want to admit – about what we see there.

00:01 – I have not read large amounts of the local and national commentary on the video (though I have read some), and the first thing I noticed here is the wildly swinging camera before we fix in on the image of Officer Ramos talking to Kelly Thomas.  When I’d first seen the term “security footage” applied to the video, I had presumed that that referred to a camera that was either stationary or switched between views in a set pattern, which had fortuitously happened to capture this event.  This is something different.  What we learn from the first few seconds is that someone, at this point in the interaction, deliberately took control of the camera and focused in on the events involving Ramos and Kelly.  Maybe someone else here knows: who made that decision, how, and when were they tipped off as to when to focus in on that interaction.  Did the police on the scene (Ramos and Wolfe) do so automatically, or did someone else intercede?  It looks to me as if someone was scanning and watching, eventually framing and then following the interaction.  Does this affect our view of what was going on?  Sound then comes on at 00:17.

00:18 – Ramos is swinging his baton back and forth in his hand in a menacing fashion.  Is this good or bad police work?  You have to answer this question with the same information that Ramos and Wolfe had at the time – not knowing that within half an hour Officer Cicinelli would be pounding Kelly’s face into an unrecognizable pulp.  Why is Ramos doing this?  Is he supposed to be doing it?  Do we think that other officers should NEVER do it again?

01:20 –Despite having had regular interactions with Ramos, Kelly apparently lets him know that he doesn’t speak English.  The officers plan along, offering to talk to him, in Spanish, Mongolian, etc.  Initially I thought that Kelly had just come up with a very poorly executed plan to protect himself from interrogation, given that (so far as I can tell) he was speaking at least partially in English (and had presumably done so in the past.)  But it looks to me that Kelly is on the ball enough to know that what he’s saying is absurd.  He’s playing with the officers – patently lying to preserve his dignity, his ability to be treated like a human being capable of resistance.  Why are the officers playing along?  Because they’re leading up to getting a more serious concession from him, as we’ll see in few minutes.

01:40 – I’m going to just write what I hear rather than use official court transcripts.

Wolfe: “Where do you normally sleep at?”

Kelly: “I sleep in trash cans.”

“In Fullerton or where?”

“Yeah.”

“You plan on going to sleep soon?”

“I’d like to.  I would like to.”

What’s this about?   I’m going to argue that the officers here were implementing official city policy.  You can’t sleep in a trash can in Fullerton.  Fullerton, I believe, would like its homeless to go elsewhere.  They’ve now established that Kelly planned to break the law.  For those who weren’t paying much if any attention to the Necessity Village protest of Occupy Santa Ana, this is a very good example of what the homeless go through, and why laws against sleeping in public are wrong to deny the homeless that necessity.  Wouldn’t it have been great if the cops could have just arranged for Kelly to have a lift to the Armory?  But the Armory was closed; that’s not our policy – our county’s policy.  Do we pay the cops to pretend that the policy doesn’t exist?  Do we want them asking these questions?

02:07 – Kelly may be mentally ill, but his sarcasm is working perfectly.

Ramos: It seems like every day we have to talk to you about something.  Do you enjoy it?

Kelly: Oh yeah, it’s great, you know, I LOVE bumping into you every day.

[INTERLUDE 1: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

There will be 10 of these “interludes” as we go through the video; if you don’t want to be influenced by my own perspective, answer them as you reach them, before you get to the end.

02:24 – After a car’s acceleration drowns out some interaction, it’s clear that Ramos wants to ask Kelly some questions.  Kelly is cooperative: “what do you guys want to know?”  Traffic noises obscure the next half minute.  Apparently, Ramos is talking to Kelly about some complaint called in about him or others.  Kelly says he doesn’t know about whatever it is.  Ramos (and later Wolfe) fixate on confirming his name – which is odd (as Kelly probably realized) given their history of interactions, but Kelly has to play along.  At around 04:30, Ramos mentions suspicion of burglary.

05:00 –Kelly mentions something about “moving on.”  Ramos says “I’d like to.”  Kelly: “I forgot your name,” then later, saying matter-of-factly “I don’t want to go.”

05:27 – Here’s what they apparently wanted – Kelly’s consent to a search of his backpack.  They have said that they can’t establish his identity, and Wolfe says “Do you have anything in your backpack with your name on it?”  Kelly might have said “no” to a search before; now it will help him solve the problem of their supposedly not knowing his real name.  It looks to me as if the last five minutes have been leading up to this.

Kelly: No, why, did you want to see some stuff?

Wolfe: If you don’t mind.  [Kelly takes off his backpack and hands it off-camera to Wolfe.]  We just gotta figure out your name so we can get out of here and go about our business and you can go to sleep.

Wolfe sends Kelly to stand near Ramos.

[INTERLUDE 2: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

05:50 – Ramos tells Kelly to sit down.  Things start to get heated.  Ramos tells Kelly to sit down.  Kelly asks where?  Ramos says “there on the curb,” but he doesn’t seem to be pointing towards the curb.  Kelly either doesn’t want to sit down or doesn’t understand the instructions clearly.  Ramos steps forward.  Wolfe says “Just sit down so we can get this thing done and you can go about your business, dude?”  The camera has scanned and refocused.

At 06:20, Kelly sits on a raised object with waist-high object on which he can lean behind him.  He first sits forward with his arms on his knees, and Ramos points and continues to tell him to sit on the curb.  Kelly leans back and stretches out his legs.  Ramos points again and he leans forward, elbows on knees.  He leans back again, then forward again, repeatedly – it’s unclear whether this is at Ramos’s direction.e He   At the 07:00 mark, Ramos seems satisfied and stands to the side.  A bicycle rides by.  At about 07:15 a new officer comes into view, touches Ramos on the elbow to get his attention, and says “in case you need us.”  Ramos and Kelly continue to talk.  At 08:23, Ramos walks closer to Kelly and stands at his side.

08:36 – Heard from off-screen?

Wolfe:  “Is it Ronny?  That’ right?  No?  So should we take you for having someone else’s mail?”

A long pause follows, with Ramos standing by Kelly, who is seated leaning back with legs extended.  Another police care shows up at about 10:00 and the legs of two officers are seen walking behind Kelly in the top left of the frame.  Around 11:00, a bald-headed person in a backpack is seen waving to attract Ramos’s attention and a conversation ensues for the next 45 seconds, after which Kelly leans forward to take a sandal he had removed from off of the ground.  Kelly appears to have begun pulling at his hair nervously.  He starts having an animated discussion, gesturing with beseeching open arms while looking up at Ramos.  This continues until Ramos walks away at 13:30.

13:30 – Wolfe tells Ramos that Kelly has two pieces of mail for an attorney and wonders if he (presumably the attorney) is the victim of a theft.  He explains that the attorney, Casey Hull, “so I’m thinking of suspicion of 496.”  Ronnie Casey Hull is an attorney with an office on Santa Fe Ave., right near the Transportation Center.  Now they have something with which to charge Kelly, if they want to – Penal Code section 496, misdemeanor possession of stolen property.

[INTERLUDE 3: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

14:30 – Kelly has resumed pulling at his hair.  Ramos returns and orders Kelly, “put your feet out in front of you.”  Kelly moves his feet a few inches forward, then back, then forwards again, but not outstretched.  Ramos speaks relatively quietly.

Ramos:  I’m not fucking around anymore.  I’m trying to be nice.  Put your feet out in front of you.

Ramos repeats this as he puts on his now-infamous latex gloves.  Now, more determinedly: “Feet out in front out you.”  Kelly isn’t moving.  Then at about the 15:00 mark, where the abbreviated tapes start, Kelly leans back by maybe 20 degrees against the kiosk at a stretches out his feet.  Ramos’s gloves snap into place.  He now says “Put your hands on your fucking knees.”  The profanity is just a way of being menacing; being menacing is just a way of achieving compliance.

I am watching this while sitting in my office chair, already knowing what comes next, with the wall about as far away from me as the kiosk is behind Kelly.  I stretch out my legs, lean back about 20 degrees, and extend my hands.  Sure enough, only the tips of my fingers reach to my knees.  I think of what I would think I would say, given maximum calm and presence of mind, in that situation: “This is the best I can do, officer.”  We can’t expect everyone to memorize that.  I don’t know that I’d remember to be that polite, especially if I misinterpreted the instruction.

Kelly leans forward and places his arms on his knees just past the elbow.  Ramos is displeased.

Ramos: Put your feet out in front of you.

Kelly, seeming surprised:  Well which one is it, dude? –

Ramos, interrupting with a bark:  BOTH!

Kelly, leaning back again:  I can’t do both.

Ramos:  Well you’re gonna have to lean real quick.  Put your hands on your knees.

Kelly finally leans forward with his legs extended and arms resting along his legs.  Now it’s time to arrest him.

[INTERLUDE 4: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

Ramos wants to ensure compliance.  So he makes his speech to a person he is about to arrest, for what I’m guessing is not the first time.  Here, I’m aided by a transcription presented in court (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eU51GYBrcyY):

Ramos:  Now you see my fists?

Kelly:  Yeah, what about ‘em?

Ramos:  They’re getting ready to fuck you up.

Kelly:  Start punching, dude.

Ramos:  If you don’t fucking start listening.

Kelly:  It sucks.

Ramos:  Yeah?

15:35:  Kelly moves his hand back to behind him, as if preparing to steady himself while pushing himself up from the ground.

Ramos:  Put your fucking hands on your knees!

Kelly:  Well hey, I’m sick of playing games.  Which … which one is it?

Ramos reaches out and grabs Kelly by his left shoulder, closest to Ramos.

Ramos:  I’m through playing games too.  Put your fucking hands on your knees right now.

Kelly:  Would you just fucking …

By now events are happening quickly.  Kelly stands up.  Ramos cocks his fist back to prepare a punch.  Kelly sees him and changes his demeanor.

Kelly: All right, all right.

Ramos:  Put your hands …

[INTERLUDE 5: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

With Kelly standing, Ramos has changed his mind and moved to Plan B.

Ramos: Get on the ground now.  Get on the ground.  Get on the ground!

Kelly has started moving away from the hulking Ramos.  He turns and sees Wolfe, briefly holds up his hands towards him in a “don’t attack me” gesture, then continues sidling away.  It has been five frenetic seconds since the first order to get down on the ground, and he’s not getting down on the ground.

[INTERLUDE 6: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

Wolfe strikes Kelly with the baton at 15:47; Ramos advances and does the same a second later.  My sense is that Kelly does not look like a risk to harm either one of them physically; I can’t rule out that he may have looked like a threat to flee.  And, by 15:51, he has fled a short way down the street, the officers chasing him out of the scene.  The camera searches the men out, finding them at 16:16, when we see a baton lift and land.  The camera zooms in closer and in doing so excludes Kelly and the police from the scene by 16:18.  By 16:19, we see the officers on top of a struggling Kelly, who is trying to surrender – “Okay!  Okay!” – but is still up on his right elbow.  At 16:22:

Ramos:  Put your hands on your back!

Kelly:  Okay!

Ramos:  Put your hands behind your back!

Kelly, groaning and screaming:  Oh, shoot!  Oh!  [More groaning]  OK, I’m SORRY!  I’m SORRY, dude!

Ramos tries to get Kelly to put his hand behind his back.  Kelly says “OK, hang on a second.  OK.  I’m sorry, dude!”

[INTERLUDE 7: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

We’re at the 16:46 point, exactly halfway through the video.  This is about as much as I would let my young teenage daughter watch.  This is what apprehension of a fleeing suspect looks and sounds like – and she might as well know it.  I’ve already tried to teach my kids a lesson: Unless a cop appears to be a psycho who is actually trying to kill you, don’t run from the cops.  This underlines it.  The question of whether these officers to this point had acted properly in apprehending Kelly once he fled is a separate one from (1) the question of whether they should have stopped and searched him in the first place, (2) the question of whether they treated him appropriately while he was being held pending arrest, (3) the question of whether they treated him appropriately once he stood up and began backing away from them, and (4) … everything that happened next.

And this is a good segue to the entry of Officer Jay Cicinelli into events.

Those people who think that Kelly Thomas was moved to behind the cover of the tree foliage for the later events have a hard case to make; it’s the sort of conspiracy that undermines the very serious critique of what comes next.  Kelly ran to the spot where he landed.  The forward progress of tackling and subduing him moved him the last few feet.  The cops could not have known the angle of the camera to that fine a degree – and even if they had they could do nothing about it.  Events were playing out where they were because that’s where Kelly ran and was brought down to the asphalt.

By the 17:00 point, Kelly is complaining that he can’t breathe.  For those of us of a certain age, this brings us back to the bad old days of Daryl Gates and his claims about racial differences in “positional asphyxia,” from which those (especially Blacks) apprehended by the LAPD kept on dying after being put in “chokeholds.”  This – I don’t even think is disputable – was not to this point as bad as that.  When a man of Officer Ramos’s size is using his weight to pin down a man of Kelly Thomas’s size, the man on the bottom has a chance of asphyxiation.  I expect police officers, taking into account the actual degree of danger they face (which would have been different if, say, Kelly had pulled out a buck knife), to recognize the problem, account for it in their actions, and even increase their own personal risk at some point if it appears that a fleeing suspect – especially a non-felony suspect – may be asphyxiating in order to prevent it.  Sorry, cops, but balancing your personal safety against even that of a fleeing suspect is part of the job.

Part of that calculation is that Kelly obviously could breathe – or he would not have been able to speak.  That doesn’t mean that the cops didn’t have to take the prospect of his asphyxiation into account; it did mean that Ramos could probably expect that he had some more time to try to subdue Kelly safely before risking causing him lasting harm.  Reasonable people can disagree about this and I’d reserve the right to change my mind given more evidence, but at that point, if Kelly had for example been chloroformed and passed out, he’d still be alive now.

At 17:23 comes an odd moment in the tape.  Kelly, still being subdued but apparently still able to collect himself and act intentionally, yells out “Hey, Carona!”  My honest first reaction was “is he calling out the name of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona the way that Al Pacino yelled out “Attica!” in Dog Day Afternoon, as a way of protesting police misconduct?  That seems unlikely.  I presume that he saw someone he knew called “Carona” or “Corona” and was asking for their help.  That just underlines my belief that at this point it was not clear at all that Kelly would die.

At 17:26, Kelly starts panting.  Ramos, who is trying to get him into a position where he is completely unthreatening to him and the other officers while lying on top of him, tells him “Relax!”  Kelly yells out – not an agonized scream, but the tone of someone trying to get a point across, “I can’t, dude!”  This is where someone could and should have moved in and just helped to untwine Kelly and Ramos so that it was clear that Kelly would stay on the ground.

Ramos moves at 17:31 and Kelly’s screams intensify.  “Relax!” is met with “I can’t breathe!”; another “relax” with “Okay!  I can’t breathe! … I’m sorry man.”  It is a rotten conversation, but one that Kelly still seems likely to survive, and Ramos seems to want him to survive it.  A siren is heard, and at 18:02 a police car rolls into the top of the frame and we see the shoes of an officer come out.  Either it or the one who arrives twenty seconds later is Jay Cicinelli, who is there to kill Kelly.  At 18:05, Ramos recognizes him and starts barking out orders to him and to Wolfe.

Ramos:  Jay!  Joe – go to your right.  Joe, hold on!

[INTERLUDE 8: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

The cops want Kelly face down on the sidewalk, which I suppose makes them marginally safer in this situation than if he was face-up, but seems not to be worth the trouble of achieving.  Now we hear shouts of “he’s resisting!”  A shouted question like “want TASER?”  We hear a TASER going off, twice.  Kelly is ordered to roll on his stomach, but he is screaming in pain and his mind is elsewhere.  Now we’re hearing agony – no words, just high-pitched screams.  And then, at 19:30, we see Cicinelli smashing downward with the butt of his TASER towards Kelly Thomas’s face as if he was trying to pound a nine-inch nail into a concrete block.  The camera goes out of focus for a few seconds at 19:32 – and I can’t help wondering if that was some post-production mercy for the audience, who won’t be able to see what was in the blur.

Cicinelli, I think it is, says to another officer “Help us!” and then adds at 19:42, “He’s on something.”  (Yes, the will to live is a powerful drug.)  Kelly starts calling mournfully for his father; initially it is not even recognizable as speech.  “Help me, Dad.”  This, children should not see or hear.  He’s mostly calling for his Dad, though at one point I thought he said “God.”  “Help me, help me.”  The cops are rolling him over now into the position they prefer, to further lower the odds that he would be able to harm them.  One officer is sitting on the back of another one, presumably to increase the weight holding Kelly down.  One cop – again, I think it’s Cicinelli – is saying “he’s still gonna fight!”  I somehow think that if all of the cops had counted to three and suddenly backed off twenty feet in different directions, Kelly would not have been able to run – at least not far.  I think that it would have at least been worth a try.

[INTERLUDE 9: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

At 21:45, no amount of “relax” is going to keep Kelly from sorrowfully intoning “Daddy,” while the voice I think is Cicinelli says “he’s still fighting.”  At 22:30, Kelly’s repeated phrase turns to “Help me.”  By 22:40 or so, that phrase turns into his last words.  It is about seven minutes since Wolfe hit him with the baton.

The last ten-and-a-half minutes of the tape are bureaucratic discussion among police, of how to deal with the situation, how to get him into the car, etc.  I don’t think that this requires a lot of analysis, though I’m sure that lawyers on both sides are combing through for every word – especially Cicinelli.  At 23:45, “is he breathing?”  “He’s still going up and down.”  Then the famous “we ran out … took my TASER… smashed his face in” comment.  Around 25:20: “He’s on somethin’,” we hear again, because “three of us couldn’t even….”  The spin had begun.

[INTERLUDE 10: Have the officers to this point done anything improper towards Kelly Thomas?  Are they entirely carrying out city policy?  Is the city policy that they are carrying out legitimate or not?  Do you see any crime or politically questionable behavior so far?]

Morally, the beating of Kelly Thomas may be a clear-cut case; legally, it is not – except, I suspect, for Cicinelli, and that probably on an excessive force charge, and I may even be wrong about that.  Here’s the problem: for police to be completely secure against attack by suspects, the suspects have to be unconscious or dead.  (This assumes that their bodies are not booby-trapped.)  There’s a trade-off here, and what the FPD did was decide that even the slightest degree of possible threat from the fleeing suspected misdemeanant was not worth avoiding subduing him with even fatal use of force.  The more well-protected you want the cops to be, the more likely it will be that a suspect will be killed in a condition like this.  The more you want to prevent suspects from being killed or maimed, the more that cops from being put at risk.

The argument that Kelly Thomas posed a threat to the cops at any point seems weak to me, but I am not a cop, and if we let cops make these calls on their own – and we generally do – it’s hard to call them criminals when they put a lot more weight on their own protection than the safety of suspects.  Ramos could be convicted of second-degree murder if, in essence, a jury found that his actions violated the law to a degree substantial enough to take away his police immunity – and a death occurred as a result.  Up through the arrival of Jay Cicinelli, Ramos is “guilty” of putting the safety of himself and his partner absolutely paramount – and the question of whether his doing so put him outside of the protection of the law is one for a judge and jury to consider.  It sure sounded like all he wanted to do is to get Kelly Thomas into a position where he could pose no possible threat.  I call that unreasonable under the circumstances and maybe even stupid; I have a hard time calling it illegal.  (If I did, it sure wouldn’t be because he put on latex gloves and threatened to beat a suspect if he resisted, because I’m pretty confident that that’s fairly standard for police in some situations.  If the people of Fullerton don’t like it, they had better inform the cops – and then live with cops who are likelier to let suspects flee.  It’s one or the other.)

Now let’s look at the world through Jay Cicinelli’s eyes.  (OK, “eye.”)  He comes up to a situation where two officers, one of them especially meaty, are holding down a suspect who is screaming that he can’t breathe – not moving, but also not “relaxing.”  As I say above, the tool that I’d like to see cops use in this situation is probably some more advanced version of chloroform – the idea is just to get the guy to stop struggling.  Use of the TASER?  That’s completely unnecessary – although if it’s Police Department policy, and I suspect it is in many more places in the county than Fullerton, it’s probably not a crime.  As for use of the TASER to smash in the face of a subdued suspect who simply needs to be moved into a safer position?  Let’s just say I’d need to be convinced that that wasn’t a crime.  The absence of instructions from other cops like “he’s got a gun (or knife)” or “smash in his face, Jay!” should have been a hint.

What needs to be fixed here?  I think that the tradeoff between police safety and suspect safety needs to be recalibrated.  That Kelly Thomas was small and homeless enters into the equation somewhat, but not entirely – small people and homeless people may have knives, for example, and may pose a danger to cops.  Had a buck knife been found (or planted) on Kelly, we’d be having a very different discussion, and Ramos and Wolfe didn’t know for sure that he posed no danger, even if you and I think that they knew for sure enough.

Cicinelli’s behavior, by contrast, needs to be fixed.  In my opinion, it’s clear from the video that he overreacted to the situation with a high level of force, including lethal force, and also that his assessment of the situation was skewed and his post-event justifications were convenient but strained.  That needs to be fixed – and, if it needs saying, his career as someone who can be armed as a public or private officer should be over.

But that’s not what needs to be fixed most.  You can see a tragedy of circumstance playing out here, in addition to what malicious behavior we may infer from the cops, but the basic problem arose before 00:01 of the tape:

Kelly Thomas should not have been stopped at all.

Kelly Thomas, shirtless and scruffy, was an undesirable.  Fullerton – and I believe that this was as a matter of public policy – did not want the homeless around.  The homeless make people not want to be here.  The homeless lower the values of property and businesses.  Like most cities, Fullerton wanted them elsewhere.  The cops understood this clearly.

So, they saw Kelly Thomas walking around and they looked for a way to arrest him.  They intimidated him into accepting a search of his backpack.  The backpack containing mail from a law firm across the street gave them a reason – I’d call it a pretext, given the availability of benign explanations – for an arrest, having stolen property.  This seems awfully strained to me, but it seems to have done the trick.  Once you have the basis for an arrest, then you have the basis for order someone around, and (almost) everything that you do after that can be justified as a response to resisting arrest, even if the arrest itself is bogus.

Fullerton wanted the homeless out of its public space.  The officers, knowing that, found a basis to arrest and transfer out one homeless man.  He was not immediately compliant enough for them; he tried – as is a natural human tendency – to flee.  Things escalated.  They tackled him, brought him down, and tried for a while to get him into a position where he could pose no possible threat to them.  A cowboy officer showed up late on the scene and tried to help out by beating his face in.

Some of this is inevitable error in the process of law enforcement.  But the real way to have prevented this problem is: don’t try to move people out of an area when they’re doing nothing wrong except being undesirable.  Spend the money so that the homeless can survive here, can get a place to sleep, which is all that Kelly Thomas had wanted at that moment.  That is something that does not implicate merely the police force or the City Council – it implicates everyone who wants a “decent” city that is not sullied by the existence of homelessness.

This is not what Fullerton wanted, but it is the implication of what Fullerton wanted:  a nice suburban city where people don’t have to be confronted with homelessness — or pay to deal with the growing problem of the homeless.

Some critics have said that Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva’s focus, at the beginning of the controversy, on improving how the city deals with the homeless was missing the point.  After viewing this video of how the tragedy came to pass, I think that it was right on point.  This was not an error in arresting a misdemeanant or felon; it was an error in arresting a gentle and innocent man, based on priorities ultimately directed by the voting public.


About Greg Diamond

Worker's rights attorney now moving into "good governance" litigation. North Vice Chair of Democratic Party of Orange County and occasional candidate. Proud to be prolix. Unless otherwise specifically stated, his writings never speak for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Brea but generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and without compensation, although in 2014 he may receive some compensation for campaign consulting and fundraising for the campaign of Jorge Lopez for Orange County Assessor.