Last night, the Fullerton City Council set aside part of their agenda so an overflowing public of more than 300 attendees could speak about their concerns surrounding Kelly Thomas and last Monday's shocking verdict. While everyone who spoke was angry across the board, their concerns ranged from pleading with Police Chief Dan Hughes to bar Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, and Joseph Wolfe from getting their jobs back to citizen police oversight and how the Fullerton Police Department dealt with Saturday's protest.
The meeting began, as all of them do, with everyone reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, except "justice for all" was yelled out by the crowd. Things then got underway quickly as Chief Hughes promised the crowd he would not rehire Ramos, Cicinelli or Wolfe. "It's important to acknowledge that the criminal case has no affect on my decisions about their employment," he assured everyone. "I am confident in my decision."
If the three officers decide to appeal Hughes' decision they must meet in front of an outside arbitrator, but it would ultimately be the the city council's decision to give them their jobs back. Hughes did confirm, however, that a federal criminal investigation of the officers who beat Thomas in 2011 is currently underway.
Ron Thomas, Kelly's father and biggest advocate was the first commenter to take the podium. He thanked Hughes for "sticking with his stance on [the officers'] termination," and then addressed this past Saturday's protest. "Don't judge myself or Kelly's army by some of the actions this weekend," he said. Throughout the night, many other commenters reiterated this point: the protest at the Fullerton Police Station was completely peaceful until around 3:30 p.m., at which time some "rowdy kids" that Kelly's Army does not want to be associated with, began tagging and blocking the streets.
Although Kelly's Army disagreed with those actions, none of them believed that it warranted the Fullerton Police putting on their riot gear. "There's a difference between property damage and violence. Violence is not spray paint," one woman yelled. The crowd also complained about the riot police targeting protestors who were doing nothing wrong. It seemed that the citizen journalists who were live streaming the protest from their cell phones were a target for harassment. Multiple people described "undercover cars going around and just snatching people up," after the protest dispersed.
At least three people who were arrested attended the meeting, and two of them recounted an experience where police intimidated them in the paddy wagon, and then took them to a holding cell where an officer told the group, laughing, "I got two words for you guys 'Not Guilty!'
One soft-spoken attorney took the podium and presented it this way: "Don't let the few bad apples take over the whole story. Saturday was beautiful, with only a few outliers."
The evening was colored by passionate and mostly informed speeches, with only two people comparing America to Nazi Germany. And while many Fullerton citizens attended, the meeting also pulled people from South County, Pasadena, and as far as Downey. Several shared their touching, personal accounts of police brutality. One came from a particularly mysterious woman who said that a Fullerton officer recently put a gun to her head, and was taken off duty for it but had no other repercussions.
A couple of speakers got a bit too passionate for the council, though. Alissa Kokkins
from Los Angeles took her turn, shouting, "I don't have anything to say to you guys" and then pivoted to face the crowd. Mayor Chaffee could be heard, sternly warning Kokkins that she must face the council and that "this is a democracy." The council went to break when Kokkins would not stop talking to the crowd.
Another man said rehiring the officers would be terrible for the reputation of the city, but 10 minutes later, when the council was speaking he shot up, red faced, and screamed from the back of the room "I'll sell my house and leave this town! We'll bankrupt you! I'm disgusted!" And then stormed out. Then there was the woman in the overflow room who pleaded, "Since we all agree on this, can we stop the clapping?!" because the crowd applauded after every speaker. She was met with some scoffs, but everyone continued clapping just the same.
It took about four hours for over 50 commenters to take their place at the podium and most of the council members looked bored, save for Council Members Jan Flory and Jennifer Fitzgerald. Chief Hughes, however, remained engaged throughout the entire proceeding and looked the speakers in the eye. He explained that he agreed with many of the comments tonight and that the department has gone through many changes in their hiring standards, some of which will include taking more entry level officers from the academy and having an outside company conduct their officer background checks.
As far as the riot gear went, Chief Hughes said that the Fullerton Police have facilitated many peaceful Kelly Thomas protests over the years, but when people began blocking the streets and saying they would burn the police station with Molotov cocktails, action had to be taken. He made no comment on the several speeches that begged for a civilian police oversight program, but Council Member Bruce Whitaker said he supported the idea.
It's hard to tell whether Chief Hughes' insistence that Fullerton PD is different now placated the angry citizens. Regardless of the protest, the verdict is still what no one wanted. "Bax" Baxter, Fullerton's ultimate bleeding-heart activist said, "The system failed Kelly Thomas because he was not a cop."
We still have Ron Thomas' civil lawsuit, which is moving forward. And we can hope that Chief Hughes is right about better training and professionalism for his officers. Kelly's Army, and other supporters like students at Cal State Fullerton will continue to fight for justice. Put up a sign, join them at protests, or sign the White House petition to take the case to Washington. It's like what one commenter said, "We want to be able to run to a police officer, not run away from them."