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 following year, officers John Cross and Gregg Nowling approached a 23-year-old black man in the parking lot of the since-shuttered Rockin' Taco Cantina because they thought the music coming from his car stereo was too loud. The cops searched his car and didn't find anything, but they arrested him for giving them the wrong name. He eventually gave them his real name, and the officers saw that he had no prior arrests. They then took the man to the station, where they punched him in the back of the neck and repeatedly hurled racial slurs at him. Although Cross and Nowling were demoted for the incident, they weren't dismissed—that would happen only after Nowling lied to his superiors about being sick when he was actually on a hunting trip, while Cross was fired in 2007 for, among other things, not reporting a drunk off-duty sheriff's deputy who was brandishing his weapon at the popular cop hangout the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen.

David Bailey, part-owner of Matador Cantina (site of the former Rockin' Taco) and a former Los Angeles police officer, says he has met with the Fullerton PD to talk about officer behavior in the area. "It's like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. You don't need to treat everybody like that all the time,'" Bailey says. He attributes the department's problems to a lack of leadership and addressing allegations. "The officers felt it was okay, in the Kelly Thomas beating, to do what they did in full view of a hi-resolution video camera. . . . That just goes to show they've done other things. You don't steal $100 from your employer out of the till until you've stolen a $1 and a $5 and maybe a $10 and a couple of $20s."

But it hasn't been just revelers and suspected gang members who receive the Fullerton PD's idea of justice. Reba Lewis, a 68-year-old retired accountant, says she has seen the cops try to justify or cover up wrongdoings with outright lies. The frail redhead was home alone prepping her home for Thanksgiving a year ago when she heard the doorbell ring. Five detectives stood on her front porch and began screaming that her adult son (who lives at home) was doing drugs and that her home of 40 years was a meth house.

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.

"We're not cooking meth," Lewis recalls saying, her voice cracking now. "The only thing that cooks in my kitchen is sugar cookies. We just wanna be left alone, for God's sake."

But that didn't happen. Instead, the cops barged into her halfway-open garage and began searching it with no warrant and without Lewis' permission. The officers yanked open dresser drawers and rifled through them, Lewis says, adding that they found her son's wallet and took his driver's license.

The police did arrest Lewis' son for being under the influence of methamphetamines, but the case was quickly dismissed. Even still, the police haven't left the Lewises alone, periodically popping in with no warning. One time, she says, they claimed to be there for a code violation because they had heard somebody was sleeping in the garage.

Finally fed up with what she calls the "Gestapo," Lewis filed a complaint with the Fullerton police department this September, even after, she claims, an officer tried to talk her out of it. Later that day, one of the cops who illegally searched her house called her. He thanked her for inviting the police to "look around" her home, a move that flabbergasted her.

Lewis, who currently has a civil claim against the city for the search, says she's certain the officer was recording the conversation and trying to coax her into saying she let the officers search her home. The department denies any wrongdoing in this case, insisting Lewis did consent.

"They just came in and started searching," Lewis says. "I was so scared. I was by myself. Five of them and a 68-year-old lady, you know? Really brave."

A month before the police invaded the Lewis home, officers had barged into another. Robyn Nordell was typing on her computer when she noticed a group of men near an unlocked back door. Within seconds, four armed officers rushed in. After a few seconds, they realized they were in the wrong house. "I didn't know if they were good cops or bad cops," she says. "We could have been Tased; we could have been shot. That kind of thing could end in tragedy so very easily."

The cops apologized several times, Nordell says, and then went next door. She wanted to report the error immediately, but her husband suggested they wait until the following day. An officer told Nordell she could meet with the officers' supervisor on Monday, five days after the raid. "Twenty-four hours later, they hadn't responded," she says. "Even now, I get teary-eyed thinking about it. I just fell apart; I started sobbing."

That Monday, the Nordells met with Captain Kevin Hamilton (currently the acting police chief, as Chief Michael Sellers has been on paid medical leave since the Thomas killing), who treated the situation with respect and took "full responsibility." But Hamilton told them he had just heard about the raid that morning.

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