Witnesses describe fatal police fight with CA man
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Five Fullerton police officers involved in an altercation with a homeless man who later died of his injuries were placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday a day after new surveillance video shows witnesses telling a bus driver that the officers had used a stun gun and beaten 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, first made public on Monday, was obtained through a public records request by the blog Friends for Fullerton’s Future.
Officers confronted Thomas, who suffered from schizophrenia, on July 5 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 an altercation that eventually involved six officers whose names have not been released. One officer was initially placed on paid administrative leave; Police Chief Michael F. Sellers decided to do the same for the other five officers on Tuesday, Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, a department spokesman, told the Associated Press.
He said he didn’t know what prompted the chief’s decision.
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.
“This is what we’ve called for from the moment this occurred on July 5,” Goodrich said. “We’re waiting for the investigation to be completed as much as anybody else is.”
Goodrich declined to comment on the videotape and declined to say if the city had its own surveillance tape showing the incident.
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.
At a raucous City Council meeting late Tuesday, Thomas’ parents and several others demanded the immediate release of the 911 call that led police to the transportation center as well as possible surveillance video from city property showing what happened.
“We want to hear the 911 tape to find out why officers had gone out there that day to begin with,” Thomas’s father, Ron Thomas, said.
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.
The video was posted on the website of Friends for Fullerton’s Future. An email was sent to the group seeking the names of the witnesses.
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.”
More than 200 people gathered over the weekend to protest Thomas’ death.
Thomas’ father, a former Orange County sheriff’s deputy, said his son chose to be homeless because of his mental illness but was in regular contact with his family. He 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.
“The videos complement each other,” Ron Thomas said. “It’s pretty compelling. These are real thoughts by real people expressed on the spur of the moment. It’s all right there.”