This one-time idealist wants to believe that in a free society the rulers are held to the same standards as the ruled, that the public wouldn’t stand for the kind of official brutality that takes place in unfree nations and that juries would punish killers even if they wear a uniform.
Yet over years of writing about policing issues, it’s hard to remain hopeful. No matter how egregious the incident — police gunning down a troubled teen in an empty park, shooting a fleeing suspect in the back, or planting evidence in a car trunk — there’s rarely any punishment. Then there’s the effect of watching the lobbying tactics police unions use in the Capitol to quash modest efforts to boost accountability.
So it wasn’t surprising when, in July 2011, the Fullerton political establishment rushed to the defense of officers who had beaten a 130-pound homeless schizophrenic named Kelly Thomas. The public saw the published photo of Thomas’ horribly swollen and bruised face, yet the mayor went on TV saying he had seen worse injuries in the Vietnam War and that it was unclear what killed Thomas, who died in a hospital days after the whomping.
We also learned that police officers confiscated the video camera of a bystander and were allowed to watch the surveillance video of the incident and essentially get their stories straight before giving their statements. It looked, sadly, like business as usual.
But then something happened to awaken that dormant idealist. Local residents were outraged and began a series of peaceful protests — never mind that the mayor compared them to a lynch mob. Two local businessmen organized and funded a successful recall of council members who they viewed as culpable in downplaying the incident. Then a district attorney with a law-and-order reputation pressed charges against two of the officers, which is a rarity.
The public could see what happened on the released transit-station video: Officer Manuel Ramos confronted Thomas, slipped on a rubber glove and said that he was going to “f—“ him up. Thomas was generally cooperative, yet the painfully long beating and Tasing session began. Thomas begged for his life, but was left in a pool of blood.
There were signs that justice might prevail, but in the ensuing months, the police union helped defeat council reformers. And in the final chapter recently, an Orange County jury issued “not guilty” verdicts for ex-officers Ramos and Jay Cicinelli. The latter already is pushing to bereinstated to the department.
“These peace officers were doing their jobs … they did what they were trained to do,” explained Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett. The defense called witnesses — including a Fullerton police training official — who echoed that same point. Police supporters have said these officers were just doing their job. The defense succeeded in portraying Thomas as a potentially violent, drug-abusing homeless man who was not compliant. Now they say we should all just move on. Nothing more to see here.
We all know there are bad apples in every profession. But one can’t have it both ways. This incident either was the result of rogue behavior by officers, as the DA alleged, or is acceptable police procedure, as the defendants claimed. The court decision effectively means the latter.
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family of Mr. Thomas and wish that this situation never had to occur; however, we believe that the jury made the correct decision in this case …,” said Mike Durant, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), a union group that runs a legal-insurance fund that covered the officers’ legal bills. “This is a lesson to everyone wearing a badge.”
What will that lesson be? It may be hard to believe, but this verdict could leave some observers even less idealistic and more cynical than before.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.