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Fullerton Council rejects initial move to disband police department

August 8, 2012 |  7:39 am

Facing vocal opposition from dozens of residents, the Fullerton City Council on Tuesday night voted not to begin exploring disbanding the beleaguered century-old Police Department and replacing it with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

Hundreds of residents packed into the council chamber cheered as the council voted 3 to 2 against asking the Sheriff's Department for a preliminary analysis that would have studied the impact of handing over the city's law enforcement responsibilities to the county agency.

The beating of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, in July 2011 sparked controversy and political upheaval in one of Orange County's oldest cities. But Tuesday night, department supporters and critics came together to ask the council not to take the first step toward disbanding the department.

After hearing from nearly 50 speakers, a council majority rebuffed a move by some on the council to examine the issue.

"You cannot replace people who have grown up here," said Mayor Sharon Quirk-Silva to loud applause. "I completely support the Fullerton Police Department." She said the city invested heavily in the department and at the very least she wanted vote approval for any such move.

Councilman Doug Chaffee and Greg Sebourn joined her in opposing the move. Sebourn said it could have been a source of information, but at this point there was not the political will to make the move.

Two council members voiced support for the analysis, saying it was just a first step in a process that would take several years. Councilman Bruce Whitaker said the community needed to allow the study to be done so city officials can explore financial options.

"Sometimes you receive a quote but that does not mean you are buying a car," he said.

Letting the sheriff take over could potentially slash management costs, said Whitaker. He said the driving force behind the proposal is the $37 million required to operate the 144-officer department and potential city deficits. He said the city's expenses are outrunning its revenue and many of the cities who filed for bankruptcy were also happy with their services until now. "It is a disgrace to go bankrupt," he warned.

Councilman Travis Kiger, one of three new council members swept into office in a June council recall election, said the council needed to explore the Sheriff's Department to ensure they had other options available. " I answer to the taxpayers in Fullerton and I owe it to them to see our finances are in good shape," he said.

The vote came after dozens of residents, many wearing I Heart Fullerton Police T-shirts, took to the microphone to oppose disbanding the department -- and after a 4.4 earthquake jolted the meeting.

"Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," said John Schaefer, a Fullerton resident and former police chief in another city. 

Barry Coffman, president of the Fullerton Police Officers Assn., reminded the council that officers have a contract through 2015 and they expect it to be honored.

Some of the department's most vocal critics, members of a group called "Kelly's Army," also endorsed the need to keep the department, saying it had moved in the right direction. 

Thomas was beaten in July 2011 with fists and the butt of a stun gun in an incident that was captured on video and audio files. Two officers have been charged in his death, the police chief has left, three officers quit the force in the face of termination proceedings and three of the five City Council members were recalled in a June election. The newly formed council Tuesday voted to have the police chief report directly to the council instead of the city manager.

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— Richard Winton

Twitter: @LAcrimes

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