FULLERTON, Calif. – City officials approved Tuesday the hiring of an attorney to investigate the death of a mentally ill homeless man after a confrontation with police that has outraged many in this suburban community.
The Fullerton City Council agreed to sign two contracts with Michael Gennaco to probe the death of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas and review the police department's policies and procedures. Gennaco specializes in examining law enforcement agencies and is chief attorney for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight body that monitors that county's sheriff's department.
Councilman Bruce Whitaker voted against awarding Gennaco a contract to probe Thomas' death, noting that he may not be able to start the independent investigation until ongoing probes by the FBI and the Orange County District Attorney's office are completed.
The council's move comes on the same day Acting Police Chief Kevin Hamilton ordered an internal affairs review of the arrest of a man in October who was later acquitted of misdemeanor attacking an officer and resisting arrest.
The attorney for Veth Mam told City News Service that his client saw a friend being arrested by Fullerton police and took out his cell phone to record what he thought were officers using excessive force. David Borsari said an officer knocked the camera out of Mam's hand and another man picked it up and continued recording.
Borsari said the video contradicted an officer's testimony about what happened and led to his client's acquittal on July 7.
Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, a spokesman for the police department, said Hamilton ordered the review based on information that was brought to Hamilton's attention over the last week.
Meanwhile, the community uproar over Thomas' death continues to grow as the six officers involved in the clash are put on paid administrative leave.
At Tuesday night's meeting, numerous residents berated council members for what they called inadequate response to the bloody encounter.
Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, lashed out at Mayor Pro Tem Don Bankhead and demanded a private meeting so he can shift his focus away from the council and on to the criminal probe. Bankhead agreed to meet with him.
Police said Thomas ran when officers tried to search his bag while investigating a report of vehicle break-ins, and they struggled to arrest him on suspicion of possession of stolen goods.
Video from a bystander's cell phone taken from a distance showed parts of the confrontation, including a snippet in which he can be heard screaming for his father. Surveillance video aboard a bus showed agitated passengers saying officers beat and repeatedly used a stun gun on him.
Thomas was hospitalized after the July 5 confrontation. He suffered severe head and neck injuries and was taken off life support several days later.
An autopsy initially failed to determine the cause of death pending further tests.