Weekend Open Thread: Sandra Bland’s Mother Will Tentatively Get What Kelly Thomas’s Father Sought in Court

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Ron Thomas interview

[ORIGINAL CAPTION, SLIGHTLY EDITED TO SLAM THE HAPLESS OCDA ONCE AGAIN]: Ron Thomas being interviewed by LA Times reporter in January 2014. We talked about how, despite the disappointments of the criminal trial — muffed by “uncoordinated hands-on” OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas — the civil trial against the city would always be the one that could do the most good. He reminded me that he is not seeking monetary damages in the trial, but simply injunctive relief against wrongful policing practices. (A jury could still award damages, of course — without the prospect of which the city might have much less incentive to settle.)

“In my experience, that’s unique,” said Jeffrey Neslund, a lawyer who negotiated the $5 million settlement between the city of Chicago and the family of Laquan McDonald, the teenager whose death at the hands of a police officer led to the resignation of the Chicago Police superintendent and the county’s top prosecutor. Neslund went on: “There were no conditions in our settlement agreement to change training or, for instance, to make sure officers have the audio on their bodycams turned on. Typically there aren’t conditions like that.”

That statement was about the tentative settlement in the wrongful death suit filed by Geneva Reed-Veal, mother of Sandra Bland, whose flimsily predicated arrest in Texas and later death in county jail led to one of the most widely influential hashtags of 2015: #sayhername.

The Slate article linked above — and all emphasis of names within both of these quotes is mine — explains:

Bland family lawyer Cannon Lambert told a local ABC News affiliate in Texas that the family had settled [its] civil suit against Waller County for $1.9 million. But the money was just one part of the settlement: As Lambert explained to the New York Times, the agreement with the county also calls for a number of procedural reforms to law enforcement practice. In particular, according to Lambert, the agreement requires the county jail to use electronic sensors to check on detainees, and to employ a nurse or emergency medical technician during all shifts. Furthermore, Lambert told the Times, the Waller County judge, Carbett J. Duhon III—who serves as the county’s chief executive officer—“has agreed to push for more funding to improve booking, training and other jail measures through legislation named for Ms. Bland.” Finally, according to the Houston Chronicle, the Department of Public Safety “has agreed to provide de-escalation training for all current and former troopers statewide.”

Outstanding!  How great it would be to prevent these problems before they even occur!  A second independent lawyer, Prof.  Kami Chavis, Director of the Criminal Justice program at the Wake Forest University School of Law, went even further:

“I’m very intrigued by this. It’s a creative response.  … But we want there to be some enforceability and some accountability with regard to the improvements. … If the agreement is breached, what will the penalties be?”

I agree with what both Neslund and Chavis say about the settlement in the Bland case being unique, atypical, intriguing, and creative (as well as meaning much less without adequate enforcement) — but was nevertheless surprised at their reaction.  Really — this sort of resolution never happens?  It’s so beyond the norm that even pursuing it is “creative”?  I’ll take their word for it.  But my surprise comes from my knowing, based on an interview in front of the Fullerton Police Department several years ago, that this is pretty much what Kelly Thomas’s father Ron Thomas had been seeking in his own wrongful death suit against that city following his son’s death at the hands of police at the Fullerton Transportation Center.

My characterization of Ron Thomas’s comments is (I think, at least) somewhere in our archives, but as I recall he had told me that they were not seeking monetary damages in the lawsuit.  (They would, of course, seek payment of their legal fees, because their attorneys cannot take one-third of “better training” and “electronic sensors.)  Instead, they were seeking substantive procedural reforms to the training and supervision of officers, particularly in the area of dealing with mentally disabled subjects.  (Kelly Thomas was reportedly schizophrenic, contributing to his homelessness.)  This struck me as extremely admirable.  I’ve defended Ron Thomas against (usually anonymous attacks) against him since, and I had looked forward to the settlement.

Thomas ultimately settled for $4.9 million in cash, including an unspecified amount of attorney fees.    (Read Bax Baxter’s “final comment” on the decision to settle at this link; both his confusion and his conclusions are well warranted.)  Should we blame Ron Thomas for not achieving the sort of settlement that Sandra Bland’s mother did?  To quote Baxter: “… no.”  It takes two to tango, after all, and Fullerton was willing to give heaping gobs of taxpayer money to rid themselves of the lawsuit, but not an inch of ground when it came to procedural reforms.  The Police Association, it seems, would not stand for it.

And look, let’s face it — that’s what unions, guilds, and professional associations do: they act in what they believe to be the interests of their members to block punishment for suspected (or in some cases pretty bleeding obvious) wrongdoing.  Educators do it, attorneys do it, businesses do it, everyone does it — even if such intransigence comes at the cost of lesser respect for their respective fields of work.  But you can’t make them (or those influenced by them) do it, if they don’t want to, without draining court proceedings that offer no guarantee of success.  As Ron Thomas said, he wanted to get enough money to make it sting.

So I disagree slightly with the lawyers discussing the settlement of the Bland case — and I can do it without rewriting a word.  What was “creative,” “atypical,” and “intriguing” here was not so much the actions of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — I’d bet that many of them, like Ron Thomas, would prefer substantive reform to cash, and I’m even more confident that most lawyers routinely handling such cases would prefer to be able to point to this sort of reform over a bragworthy level payout.  What was amazing about this resolution is that the government entity has been willing to go along with it!  That’s what makes this so newsworthy.

Fullerton goes to the polls again this fall to elect a majority of its City Council.  I follow Fullerton politics less closely than I once did, but the smart money seems to be that incumbents libertarian Republicans Bruce Whitaker (an opponent of the police on improper use of force issues Jennifer Fitzgerald (a high officer in Curt Pringle’s dreadful “public affairs” organization and a seemingly unquestioning supporter of police no matter what) will likely to be reelected, although it wouldn’t be surprising if, party affiliation be damned, no one voted for both of them.  (Whitaker is generally aligned with largely libertarian Republican Greg Sebourn on such issues and Fitzgerald with Democrat — unless something has changed — Doug Chaffee on them.)  Democrat Jan Flory, who has proven to be a gush of fresh water on the Orange County Water District Board of Directors, is retiring; she’s been mostly in the latter camp but (in my opinion, at least) is thoughtful and reasonable.  Leading candidates to replace Flory include the Green Party’s Jane Rands, Republican Larry Bennett (who would be even more in the pocket of the Police Association than Fitzgerald), and Democrat Jesús Silva (without whom the Democratic Assembly candidate in AD-65 would still be knows only as Sharon Quirk), who is much in the mold of Flory.  (He showed his gumption, though, in voting to endorse Dr. Jose Moreno over Jordan Brandman at the DPOC.  Trust me: while that was the correct vote, it was also a tough one to cast.)

Vern and I haven’t yet discussed OJB’s endorsements in the Fullerton Council race with each other, let alone with our local expert and contributor Ryan Cantor, but I’m pretty confident that we will at a minimum be anti-endorsing Fitzgerald and Bennett.  But here’s a fair rule of thumb for voters to consider in making their choice.

Let’s say that, God forbid, Fullerton (which, unlike Anaheim, seems top have improved a lot since 2011) has another atrocious police killing like this one over the next two years — one that reveals at least a strong likelihood of bad police practices.  Would you want a City Councilmember who would just automatically funnel gobs of taxpayer funds out the door to “make things right” (which is of course impossible), or one who would at least consider the wisdom of embracing the sorts of reforms presented in the settlement of the Bland case?  The Police Association — which represents the interests of pretty bad officers as well as the many mostly good ones — would like you to say “NO!”  So what say you?

This is your slightly early for once (!) Weekend Open Thread.  Talk about that, or anything else you’d like, within reasonable grounds of decency, decorum, discretion, dignity, and defiance.


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.)