Given the crisis of confidence after the death of a homeless man, allegedly at the hands of six police officers, the Fullerton City Council couldn’t have made a better choice than to bring in an outside investigator.
Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who heads L.A. County’s Office of Independent Review, has a respected record of ferreting out the truth in police abuse investigations. He was hired this week to examine the July death of Kelly Thomas, who according to some accounts was brutally beaten and repeatedly Tasered by police after they responded to a call about a man breaking into cars near a bus station. Thomas, 37, had a history of mental illness but was not known for aggressive troublemaking.
The death already was under investigation by the Police Department, the Orange County district attorney’s office and the FBI. But the public understandably has been calling for answers, and none have been forthcoming — not even a promise to provide answers in a timely way. The community has been treated as though its concerns don’t matter.
The City Council’s decision to bring in Gennaco was a long-overdue sign of leadership in the tragic case. Police Chief Michael Sellers is not expected to return from a medical leave — he reportedly is suffering from high blood pressure and stress — and chances are that few people in Fullerton will miss him. Sellers repeatedly squandered opportunities to express regret over Thomas’ death and to promise a public accounting.
The acting police chief then defended the department for showing tapes of the altercation to the officers involved, which he said was done to refresh their memories. Many investigators frown on that practice, which gives officers an opportunity to align their stories. Fortunately, Gennaco also will conduct a review of Fullerton police procedures. This is the most encouraging sign so far that there will be a comprehensive and credible report on both the death and the department’s handling of the investigation.
Gennaco and the City Council should begin this new era with a pledge to residents that they will release their findings — including all relevant videos, which have so far been kept from public view — as quickly as possible.