[UPDATED with Documents Released] Mental Health Activists Still Waiting for Fullerton Police to Respond to their Public-Records Request
UPDATE JUNE 6, 9:23 P.M.: For the better part of 17 business days, Megan Osborn of Mind(ful) Liberation Project had heard nary a peep from the city of Fullerton. The organization sought to obtain, through public records requests, police training manuals and other documents related to mental health issues. Suddenly, after the Weekly published this article on their efforts, Osborn received a call from Gregory Palmer of the Jones & Mayer public sector law firm representing Fullerton.
"He profusely apologized for the delay," she says. As for the reason why? Palmer claims there was a miscommunication in the office. He waved normal associated fees and had documents promptly emailed. "I don't really think they released exactly what we asked for unless they don't train their officers really well," Osborn adds.
We'll be back with more after reviewing what's been released.
ORIGINAL POST, JUNE 6, 12:30 P.M.: Having followed the fatal beating by Fullerton police officers of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia, activists with the Mind(ful) Liberation Project (MLP) filed a records request with the City Clerk's Office on May 12 asking for information on official PD protocol for dealing with the mentally ill. Despite a time frame of ten business days for the agency to respond as required by California law, members of the Richmond, Virginia-based organization have yet to receive either a formal determination on their request nor a written notice allowing for an additional delay. Today marks 17 days of silence.
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"We're requesting manuals and documents that are relevant to how Fullerton police officers are trained in how they are supposed to be handling people with mental health concerns," says Megan Osborn of the MLP. "We requested these documents because we believe that the way that they dealt with Kelly Thomas last year when they confronted him was not up to code."
The records request has spurred the launching of an organizational sub-project called "FOIA for Change" late last month which ambitiously hopes to "end police brutality against people with 'mental illness.'" Previously, the activists utilized the Freedom of Information Act successfully in July 2011 to obtain such training materials from the Richmond Police Department police in Virginia. After Roger Allen Skeens, an unarmed man said to suffer from bipolar disorder was shot by Henrico police in the state, MLP activists did so again, received a response in a timely manner and are in the process of raising hundreds of dollars in order to obtain related police training manuals.
Though information requests from city agencies in the state of California are directly covered by the California Public Records Act (CPRA), most agencies treat FOIA's as such anyway and act accordingly. Utilizing one over the other doesn't not provide reason enough for any prolonged delay without notice. "The CPRA requires public agencies to be helpful and not play hide-the-ball," says Terry Francke, General Counsel for CalAware. Nevertheless, activists continue to await word, any word, from the city of Fullerton.
The impetus for action came as they viewed the now-public surveillance video of the July 5 fatal encounter. "From what I could tell from the tape, it seemed as if Kelly was very confused and had cognitive difficulties with what the officers were asking of him," Osborn says. "For a lot of people with mental health concerns, when you start to escalate a situation as Officer Manuel Ramos did when he threatened Kelly, it can put them into fight-or-flight mode. As you can see from the tape, Kelly wanted to leave because it seemed he was confused and scared."
Gary Llama, another activist with Mind(ful) Liberation Project, noted that the transcripts of the encounter show Officer Ramos saying to Thomas, "It seems like every day we have to talk to you about something," evidencing prior contact. "The fact that they didn't know that Thomas had a mental health issue, or they did know that but didn't remember it, or knew and didn't act on it, that shows a failure," Llama adds stressing the need for deescalation tactics in such situations. "There are things other than just relying on the stuff attached to their belt."
Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, spoke to CNN in an interview last month where he said that Fullerton police on scene that night knew of his son's condition but didn't use even the most basic technique of calling in the Centralized Assessment Team (CAT). The agency collaborates with law enforcement in Orange County, not only in assessing so-called 5150 psychiatric emergencies, but also in instances where officers come across somebody they think needs to be evaluated in the course of their police work.
Linking incidents from coast to coast, MLP doesn't see the Thomas killing as isolated. "It's a system wide problem that also ties into the fact that mental health issues have been stigmatized in a way that people have not wanted to talk about it," Llama says. "If a police officer rolls up and someone is acting kind of odd, they're going to go with what is more likely for them in terms of what they think might be the case."
"With Kelly Thomas it was remarked 'this guy is on something.' It didn't even cross their mind to consider that this was a man who was scared, feared for his safety and wanted to leave."
If MLP were able to obtain the requested manuals and documents, they would seek to share them with Ron Thomas and his legal team in addition to publishing the manuals online on the organization's website. "My hope is that we could advocate for changes within the department and better training for the police officers themselves," Osborn says.
But first, they need an end to the silence for which there is no appeal process, only litigious recourse.
"We've contacted the ACLU of Southern California and we are waiting to hear back from them."
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