Two former police officers charged with beating a homeless man to death said they feared for their safety and rapidly ran out of options on how to control the man, who they said seemed to possess such remarkable strength during the struggle that one of the officers was convinced he must be on drugs.
[For the Record 5:47 p.m. PST, Dec. 19: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that both officers were convinced Thomas was on drugs. Only one of them wrote they believed he was on drugs.]
In their reports written after the 2011 beating of Kelly Thomas, the two officers said the homeless man didn’t stop fighting even after they repeatedly used a stun gun on him.
One of the officers said that he later used the non-lethal weapon to smack the mentally ill man in the face and head.
As the fight wore on, and waves of backup officers poured into downtown Fullerton, then-Officer Jay Cicinelli wrote that, in a last ditch effort to get an upper hand on Thomas, he urged another officer to “choke him out.”
Thomas was comatose and showed signs of suffering from cardiac arrest by the time he arrived at the hospital after the struggle. He died five days later when he was taken off life support.
The personal accounts of Cicinelli and Manuel Ramos are contained in two police reports that became public only this week when they were attached to a motion filed during the criminal trial of the two officers. Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
“I was shocked by his strength, and the amount of resistance he displayed,” Ramos wrote. “I was in fear that if I allowed Thomas to regain his footing, or unable to get him handcuffed, he was going to hurt me or Officer [Joseph] Wolfe.”
The Times reported that the officers were allowed to watch the video of the incident before writing their reports in order to refresh their memories and write an accurate account of the incident. That practice is at odds with how other police departments deal with serious use-of-force cases.
Ramos and Wolfe were responding to a call of someone trying to open car doors at a Fullerton bus depot. In his report, Ramos said he recognized Thomas immediately from previous encounters.
Wolfe, who faces involuntary manslaughter charges, will be tried separately.
After questioning Thomas the night of the 2011 incident about his name and what he was doing, Ramos said he put his right hand on the back of Thomas’ left arm to move his hands toward his knees. He said Thomas swatted his arm away and began to walk away.
“As Thomas was walking away he faced me and took an aggressive stance, which caused me to believe he was preparing to assault me,” Ramos wrote. “He began swatting his left hand and arm at me, but did not strike me. I struck Thomas with my baton on his left lower thigh once.”
Moments later Wolfe and Ramos were struggling with Thomas, who was facedown on the ground. Ramos said he had his upper body on top of Thomas, who began to push himself off the ground and lift the officer up.
“At this point I was in fear that Thomas was going to regain his footing and stand on his feet,” Ramos wrote. “So I used my body weight to pin Thomas’ upper body to the ground.”
Cicinelli, who arrived after Ramos placed two calls for help over his radio, said he encountered a violent Thomas struggling with officers on the ground. Ramos and Wolfe were breathing heavily and seemed to be exhausted, he said.
He said he struck Thomas twice on his head with his knee, but he only seemed to fight back harder. Cicinelli then used his Taser on Thomas four times, but it didn’t work as expected.
Thomas then attempted to take the Taser from Cicinelli’s hand but failed, the officer wrote.
“I was becoming more fearful for our safety because all of the previously mentioned non-lethal force applications were unsuccessful,” Cicinelli wrote. "Thomas' stamina and strength led me to believe that he was under the influence of some type of illegal narcotic."
Moments later Cicinelli began to strike Thomas “multiple” times on his face and the left side of his head with his stun gun.
“I saw that blood began to run from Thomas’ face area and he began to slowly stop resisting,” Cicinelli wrote.
In an audio recording played in court, Cicinelli can be heard saying that he hit Thomas 20 times in the face with his stun gun. His attorney, Michael Schwartz, disputed that Cicinelli actually struck Thomas on the face that many times and said the statements were made during a state of anxiety and disbelief.
Lawyers representing the two officers said the officers were dealing with a man so violent and out of control that they were forced to repeatedly call for backup. In his opening statements, John Barnett, who is representing Ramos, said the officers never used excessive force.
But prosecutors maintain that the two officers went far beyond what is acceptable “in a free society” and used excessive force.
The motion, which includes the two police reports, is an attempt by prosecutors to get personnel records for Ramos and Cicinelli in order to rebut the testimony of a Fullerton police officer who testified he saw no department violations in the video.
Cpl. Stephen Rubio, who used to run use-of-force training at the department, testified Tuesday that the actions of the two former police officers were within the agency's policies. Only Ramos’ use of profanity appeared to be a “slight” policy violation.
“The People have a good faith belief that the administrative records will contain evidence of violations of departmental policy,” the motion said.
A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Dec. 27 before Orange County Superior Court Judge William Froeberg.
Barnett declined to talk about the motion or the officers' personnel files.
“I expect everyone will do their duty, everyone will do their job,” Barnett said of the hearing, “and the judge will decide.”
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