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Fullerton official urges police chief to quit over homeless death

August 3, 2011 |  6:11 pm

Fullerton homeless man's memorial

One Fullerton City Council member called for the police chief's resignation Wednesday, criticizing the Police Department for refusing to answer questions about the death of a homeless man who died after a violent struggle with six police officers last month.

A second council member said he also was troubled by the lack information coming from police and urged that officials share what they know with the public.

"This, I think, historically is the most tragic thing that has happened in Fullerton, the biggest crisis," said Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who Wednesday formally asked City Manager Joe Felz to call on the chief to resign. "That means you’re out front, giving the public what information you can give."

At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, hundreds of angry citizens jammed into the overflowing council chambers, criticizing police for the death of Kelly Thomas, 37, and demanding that the city explain what happened. Many pointed their fingers at Chief Michael Sellers.

"It’s a failure of leadership from you, sir, and your department and it has disgraced the city," Matthew Rowe, a former Army officer who grew up in Fullerton, told the chief.

In response to the increasing chorus of public criticism, the department issued a statement Wednesday saying only: "This was tragic for our community. We are in the midst of an investigation."

Although the Police Department remained largely silent, the attorney for the six officers spoke out in their defense.

Michael D. Schwartz said Thomas was combative with officers. He said that contrary to the statements of at least one witness, the officers did not use a flashlight as a weapon. Schwartz also said there was "no excessive use" by the officer of a Taser on Thomas -- rebuffing claims made by several witnesses.

"Unfortunately, public perception of officers trying to control a combative, resistive suspect rarely conforms to those officers' training, experience, what those officers were experiencing at the time or reality," he said. "This seems to be a case in point."

On that night of July 5, six officers allegedly beat Thomas, a homeless man with a history of schizophrenia, until he was comatose. He died five days later after being removed from life support.

Officers had initially approached Thomas at a downtown bus station after receiving a report of someone trying to break into cars in the parking lot. When Thomas tried to run and struggled with officers, the situation escalated.


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-- Abby Sewell in Fullerton and Richard Winton in Los Angeles

Photo: Passersby stop to read notes left at a sidewalk memorial for Kelly Thomas, 37, a homeless schizophrenic man who died five days after an altercation with Fullerton police July 5 near the bus station.

Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times