City moves to hire lawyer to probe homeless death

August 12, 2011 - 4:45 PM
Police Homeless Death

File-This 1998 family photo released by the Thomas family on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 shows Kelly Thomas. Thomas, 37, died July 10, five days after officers investigating car burglary reports tried to search his backpack. The California prosecutor whose office is investigating the death of Thomas, a homeless, schizophrenic man after a violent fight with police in the college town of Fullerton says he hasn't seen evidence suggesting the officers intended to kill him. (AP Photo/Thomas Family,File)

FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) — City officials moved Friday toward hiring a lawyer to investigate the death of a mentally ill homeless man after a violent confrontation with police in this Southern California suburb.

City Council members held a closed session to discuss the issue as the six officers involved in the clash with 37-year-old Kelly Thomas remained on paid administrative leave and the incident was under investigation by the FBI and the district attorney's office.

City Attorney Richard D. Jones later said the council asked him to prepare a contract with Michael Gennaco, a specialist in examining law enforcement agencies and chief attorney for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight body that monitors the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The council will then vote on the contract, estimated at between $50,000 and $70,000.

The city attorney also said the council may have to decide potential disciplinary cases and therefore members were restricted in what they can say publicly.

"They are the ultimate judges," he said.

Angry residents chastised council members before the session for keeping quiet about the incident that has riled Fullerton, a city of 138,000 people in Orange County.

Resident Roberta Reid asked if an outside investigator could truly be independent if paid by the city.

"This case is really scary. It scares me and it scares a lot of people," Reid said. "My biggest concern at this point is my taxpayer dollars. ... If I were paid to do a job I would side with the person who paid me."

Some residents say they have embarked on a campaign to recall three members of the City Council, including the mayor, and urged them to resign.

They also chastised the mayor for comparing Thomas' injuries with some of those he saw during the Vietnam War.

Mayor F. Richard Jones urged the public to wait for a coroner's report to learn the exact cause of Thomas' death before passing judgment.

"Most facial injuries of that type are not fatal unless something else has happened," he told the crowd. "That was a very gruesome injury. There's no question about it. But I'm sorry, I've seen worse."

The elected officials also discussed a claim filed by Thomas' family against the city alleging violation of civil rights, negligence and conspiracy. The claim — the first step toward filing a lawsuit — was referred to the insurance company that represents the city.

Also on the agenda was the police chief's decision to take a medical leave.

Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, said he would donate any settlement he might win to charities serving the homeless.

"They've already offered me $900,000," said Thomas. "I just laughed at them. For what you did, the negligence that you showed? Ideally, I'm maybe looking for something more like $10 million, $15 million.

"So many people need help, and they need to learn a lesson here. I see this as a win-win," he added.

Kelly Thomas suffered from schizophrenia and chose to live on the streets despite support from family and friends, Ron Thomas has said. Like many homeless people. Kelly Thomas frequented a transit hub where officers on July 5 were investigating a report of vehicle break-ins.

Police said Kelly Thomas ran when they tried to search his bag, and they struggled to arrest him on suspicion of possessing stolen goods.

Video from a bystander's cell phone taken from a distance showed parts of the bloody encounter between Thomas and the officers, 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 had severe head and neck injuries and died after he was removed from life support on July 10. An autopsy initially failed to determine the cause of death pending further tests.

Police supervisors allowed the six officers involved in the confrontation to view a videotape of the July 5 confrontation before writing their reports.

Capt. Kevin Hamilton, the interim police chief, said Friday that officers frequently review video and audiotape of their activity.

"The reason we do that is we want accurate accounting of what happened in the police reports," he said.

Jeffrey Eglash, former inspector general of the Los Angeles Police Department, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that allowing such viewings doesn't advance the "truth-seeking" because it allows officers to coordinate their reports.

Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, a police spokesman, said the officers have received death threats in voicemail messages left at their homes. He said they were told to take precautions, and some moved out of their houses. Their names have not been released by the department but have appeared on the Internet. Goodrich declined to specify how many received the threats.