A year after a mentally ill homeless man was beaten by police officers and later died, Fullerton leaders are expected to launch a study that could set the wheels in motion to disband the city's 104-year-old Police Department.
The City Council is slated Tuesday to decide whether to order a preliminary analysis on letting the Orange County Sheriff's Department patrol the city, one of the oldest in the county.
Fullerton has been buffeted by controversy and political upheaval since the death of Kelly Thomas last summer. Two officers have been charged in his death, the police chief has left, three officers quit the force in the face of termination proceedings and three of the five council members were recalled in a June election.
Fullerton Councilman Bruce Whitaker, a sharp critic of how the police handled the violent encounter with Thomas, said that although the department needs to be examined, the driving force behind potentially contracting out police services is the $37 million required to operate the 144-officer department.
"The intent here is to find out how much money could be saved and what level of service would be offered," Whitaker said."We're spending a large amount per capita, and I suspect they can outline some savings."
The analysis is expected to take four months and is considered a first step to asking the Sheriff's Department to make a bid to replace the existing Police Department.
Letting the sheriff take over could potentially slash management costs, Whitaker said. He said the analysis also would allow the department to see where it could make "nips and tucks" to cut its own costs.
Councilman Travis Kiger said the department shortcomings aside, it is about money in tough budget times for cities.
"When a police union puts heavy demands on your city's finances, you have to be willing to look elsewhere," Kiger said. "If you're not willing to look outside, you're not really negotiating with your union."
Kiger was one of the candidates elected to the council in the recall. Those recalled were generally supporters of the Police Department.
The department, he said, did not help itself with its handling of the Thomas case. The homeless man was beaten with fists and the butt of a stun gun in an incident that was captured on videotape.
"The department has been severely criticized … and the police chief left in the middle of the disaster and people have been jumping ship," Kiger said.
Former Officer Manuel Ramos is now facing charges of second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, and a colleague, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens in a recent interview said that although she was not seeking to police additional cities, she was more than willing to provide Fullerton officials with an option.
The Yorba Linda City Council this year voted to have the sheriff take over patrolling its streets, and most of the southern part of the county contracts with the Sheriff's Department.
In Fullerton, Whitaker said, the city was also exploring other options and was interested in an ongoing analysis looking at possibly sharing police resources with neighboring cities.
Any change, however, would take time. The existing police union contract runs through 2014, with a one-year option for the union to renew.