A new cable TV police series, “Against The Wall,” is about a woman from a family of Chicago police officers who becomes a detective in the department’s Internal Affairs unit. This causes outrage among her police brothers and father, who view such internal oversight as treasonous. I can’t stomach the show, but the trailer is filled with predictable tough-guy rhetoric about police taking care of their “own” and not ratting out each other.
This would be OK as just silly entertainment, but I’ve covered enough police-abuse and excessive-force stories to know that such attitudes permeate every level of the law enforcement community when it comes to internal affairs or investigations by external agencies. When an officer is accused of abusing authority, the agencies and police unions circle the wagons and offer “coddling the criminal” excuses that would make even an ACLU attorney blush.
Knowing this makes it frustrating to watch how the authorities are dealing with the death of a schizophrenic homeless man, Kelly Thomas, who witnesses say was beaten and Tasered repeatedly by several Fullerton police officers July 5.
The Fullerton Police Department — embarrassed recently by various scandals involving police officers, including allegations of drug use, theft and sexual assault — waited 30 days before putting the six involved officers on paid administrative leave, which shows how tone deaf the department is to public concerns. The department’s spokesman released untrue information designed to make the public believe that Thomas got what was coming to him — claiming that officers suffered broken bones in a scuffle and releasing a scary-looking booking photo, purportedly of Thomas, that critics say is not him.
Police reportedly confiscated the camera of a bystander recording the brutal beating, although other videos emerged. The police union hired an attorney to threaten legal action against the owner of a Fullerton-based blog (FullertonsFuture.org) that has been criticizing the police actions. The blog also published a photo of Thomas’s face after the police had beaten it into a pulp, along with a horrifying video that showed the attack on Thomas, who cried out for his dad as he was being beaten.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose office is investigating the death, as is the FBI, has been on the news, commenting on the one official police video that closely shows the details of the incident. He is commenting on it, but no one outside of law enforcement gets to see it. The district attorney won’t release the video because of fears of tainting a jury. There’s not much concern that all the official statements from police sources, downplaying the incident, would taint anyone. For their part, the six officers won’t consent to be interviewed by the D.A.’s office.
There’s clearly no level playing field with such incidents.
“It’s not fair to have a one-sided dialogue with the public,” said former assemblyman and Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, as he criticized the district attorney’s willingness to comment on the video without releasing it to the public.
That’s a good point. But Spitzer — who was fired by Rackauckas and aspires to succeed him as D.A. — seems motivated by political ambition rather than concern about police abuse. Throughout his career he has mainly supported police union interests. Indeed, politicians in both parties are so eager to court police union favor that they rarely stand up for openness and accountability.
Calls to Release the Videos
Fortunately, two Fullerton council members, Republican Bruce Whitaker and Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva, called for releasing the videotape and for some level of accountability. Their three colleagues, all Republicans, have been far angrier at the growing number of well-behaved people who have held vigils and protests about the police treatment of Mr. Thomas than at the beating.
Mayor Dick Jones called protesters a “lynch-type of mob.” The other two council members are retired police officers, including Pat McKinley, who was chief of police for 16 years and hired the officers in this case.
On CNN, for instance, McKinley complained about the “flamboyant” and “exaggerated” nature of eyewitness accounts. He focused on the need for due process for police officers and admonished the public against leaping to conclusions. He mentioned that there has been no officially determined cause of Thomas’s death and that the photo of Thomas’s beaten face doesn’t mean that the police beating caused his death.
I’m told repeatedly by law enforcement officials that we can’t judge how police behave because they have to make split-second decisions.
They tell me to wait until the results of the investigation are released — but they know the authorities are under no obligation to release the reports, which are exempt from the California Public Records Act. (The release of videotapes is left to the discretion of the district attorney). They know that a 2006 California Supreme Court decision (Copley Press v. Superior Court) made it illegal for police agencies to release personnel records of officers involved in disciplinary procedures and that the police agencies have been manipulating the language of the Copley decision to keep virtually everything secret regarding police misbehavior.
California Police State
That’s why Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, argues that California has become a “secret police state.” The Orange County District Attorney’s office told me it will release the video and report in due time, but that the law doesn’t mandate it.
Rarely does pertinent information in such cases emerge until a resulting lawsuit goes to trial.
The good news is the Fullerton blogger, Tony Bushala, who received the legal threat from the police union lawyer, has made this issue his personal cause.
An old friend of mine and a local businessman, Bushala’s blog has been reporting and opinionating on every aspect of the case. “The John and Ken Show” on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles paid him a high compliment by saying that the state would be in better shape if there were someone like him in every community.
The anger vented on that radio show suggests conservatives are finally recognizing that police abuse is one of the most pernicious assaults on freedom.
But the best lesson flows from what the talk-show hosts said about Bushala. Until the laws change, local activists are the only recourse to the “we protect our own” mentality in law enforcement that seeks to excuse official misbehavior rather than correct it.
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.”