Fullerton residents ask City Council to keep Police Department
The beating of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man, sparked controversy and political upheaval in one of Orange County's oldest cities.
At City Hall, several hundred residents showed up as speakers asked council members not to order a preliminary analysis that will look into handing over the city's law enforcement responsibilities to the Orange County Sheriff's Department. The analysis, expected to take four months to complete, is considered a first step toward disbanding the 104-year-old department.
"What I've been so touched by is that you are involved in the community.... I think outsourcing would be a terrible mistake." said Dr. Stewart L. Shanfield, chief of surgery at St. Jude Medical Center.
Some residents acknowledged that some officers had tainted the force, but they added that the department as a whole has made progress and responded to change.
"Don't throw the baby out with the bath water," said John Schaefer, a Fullerton resident and former police officer.
Barry Coffman, president of the Fullerton Police Officers Assn., said officers have a contract through 2015. "We do have a contract," he told council members, "and we expect you to honor us."
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.
Before the meeting, Councilman Bruce Whitaker said the community needs to allow the study to be done so that city officials can explore financial options.
Letting the sheriff take over could potentially slash management costs, said Whitaker. He said that although the department needs to be examined, the driving force behind the proposal is the $37 million required to operate the 144-officer department.
"The intent here is to find out how much money could be saved and what level of service would be offered," Whitaker said. "We're spending a large amount per capita, and I suspect they can outline some savings."
Prior to the meeting, Councilman Travis Kiger said the issue was about money in tough budget times for cities. But, he added, the department did not help itself with its handling of the Thomas case. "The department has been severely criticized ... and the police chief left in the middle of the disaster and people have been jumping ship," Kiger said.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said in a recent interview said that although she was not seeking to police additional cities, she was more than willing to provide Fullerton officials with an option.
— Richard Winton at Fullerton City Hall
Photo: Fullerton Police Department. Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images