Prosecutors have charged two Fullerton, California police officers involved in the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic, homeless man who was brutally beaten during a confrontation with six Fullerton cops in early July. It sounds like they're not kidding around, either.
Orange County prosecutors have charged ten-year-veteran Manuel Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force. If convicted, Ramos could do life; Cicinelli faces four years. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas says Ramos threatened Thomas and "was going to hurt him for no apparent reason," while Cicinelli beat Thomas in the face with a Taser even after shooting him with the device four times. Reports the LA Times:
The district attorney also said Thomas was clearly unarmed, non-combative and appeared confused by his interaction with police, who had been summoned to the depot to investigate reports of a man peering into car windows and pulling on the handles of parked cars.
Ramos repeatedly ordered Thomas to sit upright on a curb with his legs out straight and his hands on his knees. "I can't do both," Thomas told Ramos.
"Well, you're going to have to learn real quick," Ramos replied.
"It would be obvious to any reasonable observer that Kelly Thomas had cognitive issues and difficulty in following Ramos' instructions," Rackauckas said.
The officers not only beat Thomas beyond recognition and broke several of his ribs but also crushed his thorax—which basically made it impossible for him to breathe, and ultimately killed him. Despite these many injuries, Ramos' attorney—who represented one of the LAPD officers involved in the beating of Rodney King—told the LAT that Ramos and the other officers where trying "to use less force, not more," in mashing Thomas to a pulp.
What about the other four officers who were on the scene when the beating took place? Rackauckas says they won't be charged because they didn't hear Ramos threatening Thomas. Um, not sure I follow! Maybe we just have to take what we can get. As previously noted by the muckraking watchdogs at Friends for Fullerton's Future, the DA's office and the FPD enjoy a cozy relationship. It took a while for DA investigators to begin interviewing people who witnessed the beating; Thomas' father, a former sheriff's deputy, also publicly criticized Rackauckas' office for moving slowly on securing indictments. At times the DA even seemed to side with the officers. In announcing the charges, however, Rackauckas the DA seemed pretty passionate about bringing Ramos and Cicinelli to justice; either he had a change of heart, or this is grandstanding in action.
It's hard to say what would have happened if Thomas' family members, joined by hundreds of supporters, hadn't gathered in Fullerton every week to protest Thomas's death. Their rallies certainly brought to light what appears to be an ongoing police brutality problem in Fullerton, and almost undoubtedly made it impossible for the DA's office to ignore the Thomas incident. Somewhere, someone is playing Patti Smith's "People Have the Power."
Besides showing how public pressure can produce results, this case also strengthens the argument in favor of people's right to record on-duty police officers—but not in the way you might expect. When defending laws (which exist in Illinois and a few other states) that prohibit people from recording on-duty police officers, cops like to say that recording them "affects how they do their jobs." However, the LAT reports that "much of the evidence" used to charge Ramos and Cicinelli "came from a recording device attached to Ramos' uniform, which all Fullerton officers wear"—not videos made by witnesses on the scene. Doesn't making cops wear recording devices "affect how they do their jobs"? Yes it does! Does that mean police officers should stop wearing them, then? No it doesn't! Recordings helps to ensure that officers act responsibly, which is in the best interests of everyone involved.
It's amazing to think that Ramos and Cicinelli allegedly acted so brutally even though they had full knowledge that they were being recorded. Either they got carried away and forgot, or this says something about the way police brutality cases have been handled in Fullerton up to this point. If they never expected to be prosecuted in the first place, then that's a serious problem. If any good can come from Thomas's death, perhaps it will be that FPD undergoes reforms so that no one else suffers the same fate.