Crime & Justice

Crowd packs Fullerton Council meeting over homeless death after police altercation

Still from a bus surveillance video showing eyewitnesses talking about the police altercation with a homeless man. The man later died.
Still from a bus surveillance video showing eyewitnesses talking about the police altercation with a homeless man. The man later died.
OCTA bus surveillance video

The parents of a homeless man have demanded the release of a 911 tape and possible surveillance video from a California city, hoping the material will shed more light on what led to a physical altercation last month between police officers and their son, who later died.

The request at a raucous Fullerton City Council meeting late Tuesday came a day after a separate surveillance video was made public, showing witnesses telling a bus driver that officers had used a stun gun and beat the man.

In the video taken aboard an Orange County Transportation Authority bus, passengers say officers pounded 37-year-old Kelly Thomas' face and hogtied him as he cried out for his father.

The video was obtained through a public records request by the blog Friends for Fullerton's Future.

"Where did my son's rights go as a citizen? What were his rights?" asked the man's father, Ron Thomas, at the meeting. "Listen to my son beg those officers, 'Please God, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.'"

Hours before the meeting, Police Chief Michael Sellers decided to put five officers involved in the confrontation on paid administrative leave.

Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, a department spokesman, said he didn't know what prompted the chief's decision. One officer was placed on leave days after the incident. The other five were reassigned to nonpatrol duty and then placed on leave Tuesday.

Officers on July 5 confronted Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, while investigating reports of a man burglarizing cars near the Fullerton Transportation Center.

Police have said Thomas ran away as officers tried to search his backpack, triggering the altercation.

Thomas suffered severe head and neck injuries and was taken off life support on July 10.

Goodrich said the investigation has been turned over to the Orange County district attorney's office and the officers will remain on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. He declined to comment on the videotape and declined to say if the city had its own surveillance tape showing the incident.

The 911 recording Thomas' parents and several others say they want released came from a call that had led police to the transportation center.

District attorney investigators have interviewed more than 80 witnesses and are awaiting the results of toxicology tests before deciding whether to file criminal charges, said Susan Schroeder, the agency's chief of staff.

"We're doing it as quickly as possible and putting a lot of resources into it," she said of the investigation.

An autopsy conducted last month was inconclusive about the cause of death. Further tests are pending.

The FBI has also launched an investigation into whether officers violated Thomas' civil rights, said Laura Eimiller, FBI spokeswoman.

Sellers has said it's in the best interest of everyone to have a thorough and independent investigation conducted by an outside agency.

On the bus surveillance video, passengers boarding a bus that arrived minutes after the confrontation tell the driver what they saw.

A woman who appears upset tells the driver: "The cops are kicking this poor guy over there. ... He's almost halfway dead."

A male witness says the man, later identified as Thomas, was sitting on a bench when he was approached by two officers and ran from them. The man says police used a stun gun on Thomas six times.

"They caught him, pound his face, pound his face against the curb ... and they beat him up," the man said. "They beat him up, and then all the cops came and they hogtied him, and he was like, 'Please God! Please Dad!'"

The unidentified bus driver urges his passengers to go public with what they saw and, at the end of the clip, announces the date and time of the recording. He tells the passengers that he pressed a button so that what is recorded on the surveillance tape will be marked and saved.

On July 27, the Thomas family released another video, this one shot by a bystander, which shows witnesses milling around as the confrontation unfolds a short distance away. The video shows a cluster of police squad cars with their lights flashing but the fight isn't visible.

A man's voice can be heard screaming, as well as a fast-paced clicking sound.

A female bystander says, "They've Tased him five times already. That's enough!"

Another man says, a moment later, "I don't know why they don't just put cuffs on him and call it a night, instead of hitting him."

Thomas' father, a former Orange County sheriff's deputy, said the bus surveillance video dovetailed with the bystander's cell phone video because at least one woman who is seen in the cell phone video is also shown on the bus video talking to the bus driver.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.