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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

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The 107-year-old Fullerton Police Department employs 145 sworn officers and serves the city's 135,000 residents from its home base: a beautiful, red-roofed, whitewashed Spanish Revival building with arched windows and a faux bell tower. It's directly across the street from Fullerton City Hall, near downtown, not far from the wealthy neighborhoods, Korean megachurches, crumbling apartment complexes, and many colleges and universities that characterize Fullerton.

But the setting belies a department that has long courted controversy. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated the officer ranks, joining forces with a Klan-majority council to try to run the town for the Invisible Empire. This racist legacy influenced the department for generations, as the city fathers used the squad to enforce segregation laws that limited Mexican and African-American residents to across the tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad—conveniently just down Highland Avenue from the police headquarters.

Councilman Bruce Whitaker has said that much of the info the PD initially released about the Thomas case turned out to be false, calling it "a cover-up of a sort."
Miguel Vasconcellos
Councilman Bruce Whitaker has said that much of the info the PD initially released about the Thomas case turned out to be false, calling it "a cover-up of a sort."
On Oct. 20, 2010, while meaning to do a search of a probationer's home, a Fullerton PD narcotics team mistakenly raided Robyn Nordell's home
Miguel Vasconcellos
On Oct. 20, 2010, while meaning to do a search of a probationer's home, a Fullerton PD narcotics team mistakenly raided Robyn Nordell's home

For decades, the department's heavy hand mostly confined itself to this neighborhood, where the Fullerton Tokers Town gang has claimed its territory since the 1940s. Cholos were a convenient excuse for the police to run rampant in the name of security; in 1996, the random killing of 28-year-old Ramon Toro at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting led to Fullerton police raiding dozens of homes in a search for suspects, ripping apart mattresses and destroying furniture (see Nick Schou's "Fullerton Metal Jacket," March 29, 1996). They barged into an elderly woman's home and heaved her brain-damaged, semi-paralyzed son from the hospital bed in their living room, demanding answers about the shooting. When someone asked why the police treated them like dogs, an officer responded, "You live in this environment. You live with gang members, you'll always get treated this way."

At a community meeting a couple of weeks later, rather than apologize for the raids, then-Police Chief McKinley turned the tables on outraged community members. He had only headed the department for three years, taking the job after nearly 30 years as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he helped to form the nation's first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to crack down on the Black Panthers.

"Somebody in this room probably knows who fired the bullet that killed Ramon Toro," McKinley snarled to the stunned audience. "If someone could tell us who fired it, we wouldn't have to do something like that."

Two years later, police said they found Mike Mata dead in his jail cell after hanging himself. Mata had served time before, was macho and cared about what others thought of him, says his sister, Brenda, which is why the family still doesn't believe he committed suicide. Brenda thinks her brother mouthed off to the cops, who then beat him and staged the hanging.

Although the district attorney's office investigated and concluded there had been no foul play, evidence from the investigation still perplexes the family. There were bruises on Mata's body that no coroner's report explained. The department's own files noted that an inmate in a nearby cell told investigators he heard Mata make two phone calls to his girlfriend that day, asking for $50 to bail him out of jail. If he planned to kill himself, the family wonders, why would he make those calls?

They hired a detective, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, to look into the death, says Tino, Mata's brother; he told the family that jail surveillance video from that day was accidentally erased. "What a stroke of luck for them, right?" Tino asks. After months of struggling to find a lawyer and watching the process wear down their mother, they decided to drop the case and move on.

But, watching the community open up about their own allegations of wrongdoing after Thomas' death, Brenda says, has comforted her. "I just thank God that now He's shedding the light. It took a long time."

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In 2003, the Fullerton Police Department made national headlines for a fart.

Four officers responded to a call that a woman had tried to commit suicide. Thinking she was unconscious, an officer squatted near the woman's face and ripped one, cracking, "This ought to wake her up." Another officer climbed into her bed and proceeded to air-lick her body, like a cat lapping up milk.

The woman, however, was conscious, and the matter made it before the Fullerton City Council. Police brass suspended the gassy and tongue-flicking officers for a week and a half, and the two other cops present (who stood by and did nothing) for a day and a half—but the event signaled the Fullerton cops were beyond busting up cholos and were spreading their tactics to the rest of the town.

They found their ideal stomping grounds in the city's historic downtown. What had once been a sleepy assortment of collectibles stores and antique shops set inside turn-of-the-century buildings turned into a bevy of bars, nightclubs and restaurants that attracted customers from the city and beyond. As with its longtime excuse to hassle residents in the city's barrios because of gangs, the police department used the specter of drunk coeds to apply blanket aggression to everyone.

"It was overkill," one downtown bar owner said (see Joel Beers' "The Town We—and Others—Drink In," Sept. 9, 2004). "Some bars wouldn't even call the police because one phone call about a drunk customer who refused to leave would result in six cars and 12 cops coming down and lining up in front of your business."

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