Fullerton’s acting police chief acknowledged Thursday that the department had allowed police officers involved in a deadly encounter with a homeless man to watch a video that captures the incident before writing their reports about it.
Acting Chief Kevin Hamilton said supervisors allowed the review so that the officers would have a chance to refresh their memory and write an accurate account of the incident involving Kelly Thomas.
But the practice is at odds with the way many other police departments deal with serious use-of-force cases. The LAPD’s former inspector general, Jeffrey Eglash, said that allowing police to look at video before giving evidence is a “bad practice.”
“You want each person’s recollection. I would look at the videotape like another witness,” he said. “It allows the officers to conform their statements to other evidence rather than getting their independent witness recollection. It is not a practice that advances the truth-seeking.”
LAPD’s practice is not to allow officers to review videos unless authorized by internal affairs, but the department allows an exception for footage from in-car video cameras.
Hamilton said there was no hidden agenda in allowing the officers to see what the video showed.
“Sometimes audio tapes or videotapes can refresh an officer’s memory to what happened and then they can write about it,” he said. “The videotapes were not shown to the officers in an effort to flavor anything.”
The Orange County district attorney’s office, which is investigating Thomas’ death along with the FBI, has refused to release the tape publicly, saying investigators believe it could influence witness recollections. The Fullerton police have also rejected requests to make the tape public.
The deadly incident occurred July 5, when officers were investigating reports of someone trying to break into cars at the downtown transit center. They tried to search the backpack of the 37-year-old schizophrenic homeless man who had become a fixture in downtown Fullerton. The encounter escalated after Thomas ran. Witnesses said officers beat and kicked Thomas and used a Taser on him multiple times. He died five days later after being removed from life support.
Thomas’ parents filed a claim against the city Tuesday, signaling their intention to file a civil suit. The claim alleges the officers “severely beat” Thomas “with their fists and with objects” and excessively use a Taser on him. The “excessive and deadly force” was applied to a person who “represented no threat of harm,” causing Thomas’ death, according to the claim.
Hamilton, who has seen the bus depot video and listened to an audio recording of the incident, said the video does not tell the whole story, but it is a “pretty good video” in terms of image quality. “In general terms, I would say the video shows a struggle between Mr. Thomas and the police officers.” He said there was no cover-up and evidence was preserved and given to prosecutors. “If the officers are found criminally culpable or the officers are found administratively culpable, they are going to be held accountable,” he said.
The acting chief said the six officers involved would remain on leave at least through the completion of the criminal investigation. He said he cannot legally release their names at this point and said they had already received “threats.”
Hamilton took control of the 144-officer department Wednesday when Chief Michael Sellers took a 30-day medical leave.
Mayor F. Richard Jones said Thursday that he did not expect Sellers to return. Sellers had come under increasing public criticism over his handling of Thomas’ death. Two council members, Bruce Whitaker and Sharon Quirk-Silva had called for Sellers to resign because he wasn’t being forthcoming enough with information to the public.
The medical leave bars the city from firing Sellers, whose compensation package totals $228,576 with benefits.
Whitaker said Thursday that Sellers had reported suffering from high blood pressure and signs of stress.
Law enforcement experts said the method of dealing with videotapes in police misconduct investigations has become increasingly challenging as video use becomes more commonplace. Some police unions have demanded that officers have access to such tapes.