The Fullerton Police Department Are the Bullies In Blue

Long before officers beat Kelly Thomas to death, the city's cops ran roughshod over anyone and everyone

The Fullerton Police Department Are the Bullies In Blue

It has been three years, but the shape of the bloodstain on the street is still seared in Eddie Quiñonez's mind. Just after dusk on Labor Day 2008, two officers with the Riverside Police Department fired four bullets into his father. "My dad was a big dude, maybe 300 pounds," Quiñonez, now 27, recalls. "He basically died there, right there on the street. You could see the blood from where they dragged him."

Police reports say Quiñonez's father was holding a shotgun and that, at one point, it looked like he was starting to raise it. "They didn't warn him. They just started to shoot," Quiñonez says. A community police commission, provided with information solely from the Riverside Police Department and no testimony from the Quiñonez family, eventually cleared the cops of any wrongdoing.

Ever since then, the sight of police makes the heavy-eyed, soft-voiced Quiñonez "claustrophobic"; whenever possible, he avoids them. And that's precisely what he tried to do on June 27, 2010. The Anaheim resident was in downtown Fullerton for the night, hanging out with friends in the area's vibrant bar scene. Just before 2 a.m., he stepped out of Ziings' Bistro & Bar to take a couple of drags off a cigarette when he saw police pull over a man driving a car with hydraulics. He was about 20 feet away and remembers making a comment in passing, but not exactly what he said.

Davis Barber/OC Weekly file photo
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly, has been at every city council meeting since Fullerton police officers beat his son to death.  He usually sits near the front so he can see every council member—and they can see him.
Miguel Vasconcellos
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly, has been at every city council meeting since Fullerton police officers beat his son to death. He usually sits near the front so he can see every council member—and they can see him.

Almost immediately, Officer Kenton Hampton barreled toward him. "Hey, you," he yelled at Quiñonez. "Shut the eff up. Don't interfere with my investigation."

"Your people shot my dad," Quiñonez snapped back, asking Hampton to keep his distance. The comment angered Hampton, who got uncomfortably close to Quiñonez, grabbed his left wrist, yanked it behind his back and handcuffed him.

"What are you arresting me for?" Quiñonez asked.

Hampton paused for a few seconds and announced in a mocking tone that he'd arrested Quiñonez for being drunk in public. Since he hadn't had a drink all night, he asked to be given a Breathalyzer test; the officer refused. Hampton then grabbed Quiñonez's head, slammed it against a wall, applied pressure to his head for several seconds with his elbow, then shoved him into the cruiser and drove to the department's headquarters.

Quiñonez languished in the city's jail, innocent of any crime, for four hours before being transported to St. Jude's Medical Center with head pain. Tests taken there showed there was no alcohol in Quiñonez's system, and the district attorney's office didn't file any charges against him. The next day, he made a citizen's complaint, which went ignored. "They shouldn't get away with that. I didn't want [Hampton] to think he could do it again," he says.

Yet Hampton faced no discipline.

Four months later, Veth Mam was standing off to the side of a brawl in downtown Fullerton, recording it with his cell phone. Hampton spotted him, knocked the cell phone from his hand, threw him to the ground, kneed him, and then arrested Mam for assault and battery of a police officer and resisting arrest. "Bottom line is that these officers got together and falsified a police report," Garo Mardirossian told the local media. Mardirossian is the attorney who's representing Mam and Quiñonez in civil lawsuits against the city. "There was a conspiracy . . . to write in there that Mr. Mam jumped on one of their backs and tried to choke him, when all of them knew that was a lie."

Mam, who spent two nights in jail, told KTLA-TV Channel 5 that he has been uneasy ever since. "Now when I drive, I look back," he says. "If I see a cop, I get paranoid."

Mam's case went to trial in July, and thanks to a video that contradicted the police report, an Orange County Superior Court jury found him not guilty of all charges.

Yet Hampton faced no discipline.

The trial concluded just a couple of days after another Hampton-involved case of police brutality, one with a fatal conclusion. On July 5, he and five other police officers responded to a call that someone was trying to break into cars at the Fullerton Transportation Center. Once there, the officers encountered Kelly Thomas, a scrawny homeless man with a history of mental problems who was well-known among downtown Fullerton residents and business owners. As with Quiñonez and Mam, the department manhandled Thomas—but took the assault even further, beating Thomas to death. Two officers currently face criminal charges in the case: Manuel Ramos for second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Corporal Jay Cicinelli for involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force. Although the district attorney didn't charge Hampton for his involvement, Quiñonez, who witnessed Thomas' beating, says he saw Hampton punch and knee the victim's head and body.

Thomas' killing has brought worldwide attention and condemnation to the Fullerton Police Department. It has sparked dozens of rallies involving hundreds of protesters; spurred a recall campaign against council members F. Dick Jones, Pat McKinley (the city's former police chief) and Don Bankhead (a longtime Fullerton police officer) for their silence on the matter; prompted countywide soul-searching on how to deal with homeless people; and raised the question of how the police force could have strayed so far from its mission of protecting Fullerton from the bad guys. But for residents who have dealt with the city's force for generations, the Thomas killing wasn't surprising at all. The beating and subsequent cover-up were just business as usual—except this time, a rogue department, after years of citizen harassment, intimidation and abuse, is finally getting its deserved day in the spotlight.

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