The public is angrily questioning how the act of subduing a homeless man, who was something of a fixture in Fullerton, could have required six police officers and enough force that the man died. It’s a good question; it’s also a commendable turn of events when a community rises up on behalf of one of its least powerful members. But as much as the public is entitled to answers, there’s such a thing as a police chief being too quick to make assertions before the facts are known, as Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck did in the case of the man who was first arrested in the beating death of Brian Stow at a Dodgers game. At this point in the Fullerton case, there aren’t even autopsy results.
Still, it’s been nearly a month since Kelly Thomas, 37, died after the incident at a Fullerton bus station, and even the City Council has not been able to get any details from Police Chief Michael Sellers. One council member has called for Sellers’ resignation, a premature move. The delay is unusual, but Sellers is obligated to conduct a thorough investigation.
Police came across Thomas, who had a history of schizophrenia, when they responded to a call about a man breaking into cars in the parking lot next to the bus depot. The officers allegedly beat Thomas until he was comatose, and he died five days later. An attorney for the officers said Thomas was combative. There are various videos, but the key one, a surveillance tape that is purported to show most of what took place, has not been shown to the council or the public.
It might be too soon to release the tape -- it’s being reviewed by the Orange County district attorney’s office, which is conducting its own probe. Sellers has not necessarily failed by refusing to provide each fact as it becomes known. Rather, his failure has been one of civic leadership. Fullerton residents and the general public are alarmed, grieved, outraged and looking for justice. Sellers and the City Council owed them a strong and public commitment from the start to ferret out the truth and provide information as soon as was reasonably possible. Instead, the Police Department issued only a terse statement that it was investigating the matter -- and even that came only after intense public pressure.
As a result, many of the people who are concerned about Thomas’ death have lost confidence in Sellers and the ability of his department to reach an unbiased conclusion. Fortunately, the FBI also is looking into the matter. The public might not have the answers it wants right now, but it can be reasonably assured that answers will be forthcoming from at least one agency that doesn’t have a vested interest in the tragedy.