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Kelly Thomas: Police audio recording key to case

September 23, 2011 |  9:22 am

Fullerton police make court appearance
The one piece of evidence that sealed Orange County prosecutors' decision to charge a Fullerton police officer with second-degree murder in the death of homeless man Kelly Thomas came from the officer himself.

"See my fists?" Officer Manuel Ramos said to Thomas before the fatal encounter. "They are getting ready to ... you up."

Those words were captured on Ramos' audio recorder and proved that he was intent on hurting the defenseless Thomas, said District Atty. Tony Rackauckas.

It turned out to be the defining moment before the beating and led to the second-degree murder charge, Rackauckas said. Ramos is also accused of involuntary manslaughter and remained in custody in lieu of $1-million bail after his arraignment was postponed Wednesday. If convicted, he could face a life prison term. A second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 39, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force; Cicinelli faces a maximum prison term of four years. He pleaded not guilty and was released on $25,000 bail.

Fullerton is one of a growing number of police agencies around the country that requires officers to use audio or video devices to document their interactions with people. Although the technology most frequently helps exonerate officers accused of misconduct or provides evidence during a trial, police observers say, the Fullerton case is a somewhat rare and dramatic illustration of how officers' self-surveillance can serve as a powerful check on police.

"It can cut both ways," said Merrick Bobb, president of the Police Assessment Resource Center. "A recording allows the community and the department to see or hear what happened for themselves, instead of being forced to choose between believing the officer or the citizen. In departments that are trying to rebuild trust with the communities they serve, that can be a very effective tool."

Ramos, 37, turned on the department-issued digital recorder strapped to his equipment belt when he responded to a call of suspicious behavior at a bus depot shortly after 8:30 p.m. July 5. The department's policy calls for officers to activate their recorders, about the size of a deck of cards, almost anytime they engage someone while on duty. The policy has been in place for more than a decade, Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said.

Like many other police departments, Fullerton once installed video recorders in its patrol cars. Department officials, however, found the cameras too limited since they captured only encounters that occur in front of the vehicle, Goodrich said. Instead of continuing to invest in expensive in-car cameras, Fullerton police officials opted to switch to audio recorders that generally cost a few hundred dollars each.

Despite the limitations, many police departments have continued to use in-car video systems. After years of funding and technical delays, the Los Angeles Police Department is in the midst of a multiyear, $20-million plan to install cameras in all of its patrol cars. The LAPD does not require officers to carry audio recorders.

There are no definitive figures on the number of agencies with mandatory recording policies. There are several in California, including the cities of Irvine, Riverside and Sierra Madre. Puma, the company that manufactures the recorder used by Fullerton, lists about 200 law enforcement agencies as clients on its website.


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Photo: Fullerton Police Officer Manuel Ramos, left, and Cpl. Jay Cicinelli. Credit: Orange County district attorney's office