Officers 4, 5, & 6: Blatney, Hampton, and Craig Cleared for Return to Duty

Picture of aftermath of Kelly Thomas beating with individual officers colorized

Different officers may have differing responsibility for the same result. Yes, that’s messy. You have to deal with it.

Politically, one is supposed to choose a side: cops or Kelly Thomas.  Reality, though, is more complicated than that. It’s possible that the truth regarding culpability for the death of Kelly Thomas in some cases favors the police and in other cases favors the victim.

The news that Fullerton Police Officers Blatney, Hampton, and Craig have been cleared to return to duty (although not outside of the office) should neither be a surprise nor necessarily a cause for anger.  If you presume that the beating was some joint criminal enterprise, then all would be liable, but that’s a strained interpretation of what actually went on there that day.
There were six cops there, arriving at varying times, with six different understandings of the situation, with six different behaviors, with six different stories, and with six different possible degrees of culpability.  To assess their culpability, one has to consider what they saw when their participation on the scene began and how they reacted.
My facebook pal (and occasional OJB commenter) Paul Lucas expressed incredulity at this development, and received a telling response.

Chad Merritt There is an idiot running Fullerton. She needs to go.

Paul Lucas can you elaborate? Im not following you?

Chad Merritt Sharon Quirk -Silva. She is very much on the side of the police department. Her interest is not the people of Fullerton. Her interest is the people who work for the City of Fullerton.

All this is by way of saying that the Kelly Thomas beating and killing has been politicized from the start.  “Politicized” is not a dirty word; it refers to concerted political action — and in this case some of that action was entirely appropriate.  But, as seen above, sometimes it turns into simple blind and petty partisanship.

My comment to Chad Merritt was as follows:

This has hardly been SQS’s decision. That’s just weird. I presume that you’re just saying that for political reasons.

One can certainly criticize Ramos and to a lesser extent Wolfe for their role in the beating (although it seems likely that they were following department policy, and that criticism depends on whether they knew that the call from the Slidebar was likely bogus.)

One can certainly blame Cicinelli for the needless escalation of violence and for the killing. I think that he belongs in jail.

But when I ask people to consider at the scene that these three other officers beheld when they arrived at the scene — where they saw three officers struggling with an unidentified man on the ground — and ask them what these officers should have done WITHOUT the benefit of hindsight or the opportunity to view and reflect on its contents, I get a lot of unconvincing doubletalk.

Nothing in police training tells you that these three officers, coming to a scene where for all THEY knew the guy on the ground WAS armed (and certainly Cicinelli’s actions, which they didn’t know were unjustified, was a cue to take it seriously), should hang back and consider whether one of the cops preceding them may be a total idiot.

I know that this doesn’t slake the thirst for vengeance of the crowd, but it’s the right call. Given what they knew, these three officers didn’t act significantly out of bounds. Had they seen the video beforehand, maybe one of them would have arrested Cicinelli, but all they knew is what they saw on the scene of an apparent ongoing fight. People need to have some perspective.

Another commenter elsewhere said this:

Fullerton set to put half of the cops that beat Kelly Thomas to death back to work! Review finds “no evidence” that remaining Fullerton officers involved in Kelly Thomas’ beating should be terminated. and 3 of the 6 cops we all clearly see beating an unarmed scared man to death are fit to go back to work.

That sounds awful, but one should ask some questions: did these three officers — officers 4, 5, and 6 on the scene — really themselves engage in the beating of Kelly Thomas?  Did they even know that it was Kelly Thomas on the ground?  Did they really know that he was unarmed?  I’m not entirely sure about the former, but I don’t think I saw any of them beating him.

They were trying to subdue him, sure — and maybe the force that they imparted on him helped contribute to his death (though from what I can tell that looked like it was mainly Cicinelli’s doing.)  But holding someone down isn’t beating him.  If they had no reason to know that Cicinelli was going to beat him — or, more importantly, that he was going to beat him for no good reason because he was unarmed and trying to be cooperative — how do we hang culpability on them?

They were apparently holding him down not to facilitate a beating, but to facilitate his being brought into detention.    Now maybe he shouldn’t have been detained at all — but they weren’t in a position to know that at the time they arrived.  They arrived in the middle of an attempt to handcuff an apparent suspect.  They had the right to rely on the good judgment of the officers already on the scene, even if that judgment turned out to have been bad.

They (and Cicinelli, for that matter) had a right to rely on the notion that Ramos and Wolfe had made a legitimate stop.  They (arriving after Cicinelli) had a right to take a cue from his actions that the suspect on the ground was a serious enough danger to warrant his being tasered and beaten to subdue him — they would have been reasonable to presume that he did have a weapon, judging from Cicinelli’s reaction.  They were trained to react accordingly — even in the face of the responsibility that the arrest was bogus and Cicinelli was an excitable idiot.  They were in no position to know this — and they are not supposed to wait around until they can make an independent interpretation.  They are supposed to be able to trust their fellow officers.

There is an alternative way of viewing police work, which is that every officer, before taking any sort of violent step, should independently assess whether the arrest was reasonable, whether the force being used by other officers was excessive, and so on — despite that in a situation like this there may have been no way for them to do it.  (For all the latercomers knew, Kelly Thomas or whoever it was there did have a gun or a knife — that was the more plausible explanation for the other officers reactions.)

This is simply flat-out unrealistic.  Sorry, but police aren’t going to do it — and in the heat of the struggle, unless they see something obviously out of line, they shouldn’t do it.  With the benefit of hindsight, what was happening to Kelly Thomas was clearly out of line — but they couldn’t have known that at the time because they didn’t know — and probably couldn’t have know — that Kelly was unarmed.  But they didn’t have the benefit of hindsight.

I think that it’s possible that Ramos and Wolfe rousted Kelly Thomas knowing that he had a right to be where he was, that the call from the Slidebar was illegitimate, and that there was a tacit or explicit arrangement with businesses there that if they wanted a homeless guy removed from the area all they had to do was to call the police and say that he was doing something like checking car door handles to see if they were open.  I think that it’s also possible that they acted in good faith based on what they thought was a legitimate call.  What I think of their actions after that largely depends on which of the above is true.  That’s what Ramos’s trial will be about.

I think, as I’ve written often, that Cicinelli’s actions were not justified by what he saw when he showed up, that they clearly constituted excessive force, and that from what I can tell he should be convicted.

Neither of those first two cases has much bearing on what Officers 4, 5, and 6 did when they got onto the scene — especially if they did not personally act to injure Kelly Thomas.  To think otherwise is to demand something from police that, if followed, would lead to the needless deaths of more police officers — and also of their suspects.  If Ramos and Wolfe didn’t have the ability to expect that their fellow officers 4, 5, and 6 would back them up when they arrived on the scene, they’d be more likely to use lethal force themselves to subdue their suspect.

I do understand the temptation to think that police should be omniscient in this sort of unfolding crisis, but that’s unfair. We should expect them to do their best in a developing situation without themselves engaging in excessive force based on what they understand the situation to be.  I see no evidence, aside from people making bold and baseless assertions about what the police must have known, that Officers 4, 5, and 6 did anything beyond that.  If that’s what happened, we should accept their return to duty.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)