Former Laguna Beach Police Chief Michael Sellers has taken an indefinite medical leave from his current position as Fullerton’s police chief.
Before Wednesday’s announcement, Fullerton officials and residents had been demanding Sellers’ resignation following the death of a homeless schizophrenic man after a confrontation with police.
In her demand for Sellers’ resignation, Fullerton City Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva reportedly alluded to his failure to publicly represent the department, which is under investigation by local and federal officials for the handling of the case. Demonstrators have also demanded his resignation.
“In my opinion, a chief owes the council and the community an explanation of what he knows and why he took the actions he did after an incident this serious,” said former Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil Purcell Jr. “When a guy dies, the community wants to hear from the police chief, not his second-in-command or his press representative.”
Fullerton police Sgt. Andrew Goodrich has handled questions related to the death of Kelly Thomas, 37. Comments are limited by law while a case is under investigation.
Sellers was not available for comment and did not returned a phone call to his office.
“Mike has been a long-standing police chief in Orange County,” said Paul Workman, who succeeded Sellers as chief of the Laguna Beach Police Department in 2009. “He is always professional and one of the most ethical man I know.
The Fullerton turmoil is not Sellers’ first experience with a death that involved police officers under his command.
During his tenure in Laguna from 2005 to 2009, one man died in the city jail and two were killed in a shootout at the Montage Resort and Spa. Officers were exonerated in both cases.
Matthew Dunlevy, 25, died in 2006 while incarcerated for defying a police order to vacate a woman’s restroom in a downtown restaurant.
The county coroner attributed Dunlevy’s death to a lethal combination of alcohol and drugs.
However, Dunlevy’s parents believed their son was murdered and filed a $12.5 million wrongful death suit.
The suit was settled, City Attorney Philip Kohn said.
In February 2007, Mission Viejo residents Joni and Kevin Park were shot to death in an armed standoff with police in their room at the Montage.
The shooting was determined by the Orange County district attorney’s office to be justified, and a suit filed by the Parks’ children was dropped.
Departments are barred from publicly discussing cases while they are under investigation, but a police chief can at least inform the city council of his interim assessment and intentions, Purcell said.
In 1991, Officer Keith R. Knotek was videotaped kicking a man while two other officers were trying to cuff him during a melee in South Laguna.
“After I saw the videotape, I immediately went to the city manager and the council to brief them,” Purcell said. “Anyone is presumed to be innocent until a guilty decision is made by a jury, but looking at a situation like the one in Fullerton, you know something is wrong.
“I immediately put Knotek and Dan Lowery, who was the ranking officer at the incident, on administrative leave. When they were cleared of criminal charges, I fired them for behavior that violated department policies.”
Both men appealed Purcell’s decision, which was not popular with the department’s rank and file.
The city’s Personnel Board, which hears appeals from personnel, upheld Knotek’s firing but ordered Lowery reinstated.
“If a city council is dissatisfied with a chief’s performance, it is appropriate for them to ask for a resignation,” Purcell said.
Former Laguna Beach Police Capt. Danell Adams said that a chief should be visible in good times and bad, even if the law limits comments.
“A chief should be present in the field and in the station, and well-connected to the community and to the troops,” Adams said. “And anything that can be said should be said by the chief.”
Larry Bammer, president of the Laguna Police Employees Assn., declined to comment for this story.