The tide is definitely turning in the way the public, and perhaps even district attorneys, view police officers who kill and abuse civilians and abuse their power. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has filed serious charges against two Fullerton police officers who were part of a gang of six officers who beat to death a harmless homeless man named Kelly Thomas.
According to the Orange County Register, “Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos will be charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, Rackauckas said during a packed news conference. If convicted on both charges, Ramos faces up to 15 years to life in prison. Cpl. Jay Cicinelli will be charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. Those charges carry a maximum sentence of four years in prison.”
This seems about right provided they do end up spending serious time in jail, although it’s absurd that the other four cops who stood around and were apparently accessories to the murder will not be prosecuted. If a friend and I beat to death a homeless man while four of our friends stood around and watched, the DA would prosecute us all for murder. Indeed, the gang injunctions that the DA is so fond of using are based on the idea of collective guilt for gang members. When it comes to criminal gangs that work for the government, it’s a different story. But this is progress.
I’ve written about a number of excessive force and police abuse cases in Orange County in the past decade, and I can only remember one case where the DA prosecuted — the case of OC Deputy Christopher Hibbs, who repeatedly Tasered a handcuffed man in the back seat of a squad car. Deputies thought that was really funny and made jokes about it and Hibbs’ fellow deputies, according to the DA, changed their stories on the witness stand in the case, employing what the DA’s office referred to as a “Code of Silence” to protect their degenerate colleague.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who has shown no public outrage at myriad instances of ill-behaving deputies, was furious at the DA for pointing out the obvious. Hutchens has returned Hibbs to the job, which gives you an idea of how unconcerned police officials generally are about their abusive colleagues. They believe that protecting the institution they run equates to protecting wrongdoers who work for them. Ironically, these attitudes are what is leading to the type of frustration the public has displayed in Fullerton.
After Thomas’ brutal murder, the Fullerton public has been demonstrating, marching and showing up at council meetings. Their peaceful, all-American behavior has led police officials and Republican council members to depict them in the worst light — as terrorists and miscreants. But they have soldiered on. A local blog, Fullertonsfuture.org, became a lightning rod for upset citizens and for an ongoing recall of three council members who reflexively defended the killer cops. Perhaps the public has had enough. Surely, the DA heard their demands for some modicum of justice. Kudos to Rackauckas for doing the right thing.
Now it’s up to a scandal-plagued and deeply corrupt police department — one where the cowardly and incompetent chief, Michael Sellers, went on taxpayer-funded medical leave once the pressure from the public became too much — to punish the four officers who are not being prosecuted. In police departments, if officers are engaged in bad behavior, they are generally allowed to keep their jobs if they aren’t convicted of anything. In the private sector, bad behavior — even if it is not criminal — can lead to punishment and firing. As we saw with the Hibbs case, sheriffs and police chiefs (or union dominated mediation processes) will gladly reinstate or even promote officers who do really bad things provided they aren’t convicted of a crime. That’s a really low standard.
We also have to remember that this is just the beginning. In conservative counties such as Orange County, juries typically side with law and order no matter what. In one case covered by OC Weekly’s great investigative reporter Scott Moxley, an Irvine cop who followed strippers and then pulled them over and had them perform sex acts on him was judged to have been engaged in consensual sex. Some people will buy any argument from the boys in blue.
But maybe that too is changing. It’s about time.
About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”