How the Kelly Thomas Killing Sparked a Citizen Revolt

The bipartisan movement to reform a broken California city


Given the nation's deep fiscal problems, many Americans of the right and left are so frustrated about the political process that they are jumping on Tea Party buses and occupying city parks. But efforts to reform Washington, D.C., or Sacramento are hopeless, despite those "change" slogans advanced by a president committed mainly to the status quo. If you want to change the world, you need to start in your city.

A great example of what agitated citizens can accomplish is taking place in the Southern California city of Fullerton. Three council members are the targets of a recall election on June 5. The effort has gained steam after the Orange County district attorney recently released a horrific 33-minute video of the city's police officers beating a frail homeless man named Kelly Thomas last July. Thomas later died in a hospital.

Fullerton is a long-time Republican bastion. It's hardly lefty Oakland, where protests against police brutality are expected. But the Thomas beating death and the craven response from police and the council majority were so disturbing that it sparked a city-wide revolt led by a local businessman named Tony Bushala whose blog was a lightning rod for debate. He is leading the recall election.

The brouhaha is remarkably nonpartisan. The three targeted council members—Dick Jones, Don Bankhead and Pat McKinley—are establishment Republicans. The two council members who escaped its wrath come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, conservative Republican Bruce Whitaker and liberal Democrat Sharon Quirk. Those two called for openness and accountability, but were overruled by the majority, which chose to run and hide instead. But it's hard to hide from the incident now that the video has gone viral.

The surveillance tape caught the horrifying confrontation in vivid detail. We see a large officer named Manuel Ramos approach the scraggly Thomas, who is suspected of breaking into some cars. Thomas gives him some lip, but doesn't act in a threatening way. Ramos then puts on what the district attorney calls a "show" as he slowly slips on latex gloves, twirls his baton and then says, "[S]ee my fists … these fists are going to f… you up."

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Another officer comes in and starts swinging a baton at Thomas, who cries out in pain. Yet another officer, Jay Cicinelli, used a Taser on Thomas and, as the DA explained, hammered Thomas in the face with the blunt end of it. Thomas called out for his Dad as the officers worked him over. Ramos is being charged with second-degree murder and Cicinelli with involuntary manslaughter. Ramos, the DA added, "turned a routine encounter into a brutal beating death."

After the beating, and Fullerton residents were consumed by anger and demanded answers, their leaders failed them. The now-departed police chief took vacation and then went on disability leave. That left the council to take charge. But the council majority dissembled.

It was bad enough that the Fullerton Police Department released false information (i.e., claiming that officers suffered broken bones after a supposedly brutal fight with Thomas), but here's what Mayor Jones said, which is as insensitive as it is idiotic: "I've seen far worse injuries that are survivable. I don't know why he died." Thomas was fine, then he was beaten into a pulp—something now undeniable, thanks to the video—and these city "leaders" couldn't figure out what killed him.

Furthermore, the three council members opposed the release of the video to the public. They backed the department. McKinley, a former police chief who hired the officers involved in the beating, wanted to keep the officers on the street. These three didn't seriously question the police department, which allowed the officers to watch the video and get their stories straight before giving their testimony to investigators. Jones referred to the peaceful citizens of his city who were protesting the Thomas death as the equivalent of a "lynch mob."

"The community was crying out in anger," said Bushala. "They wanted leadership. Not only did Mayor Jones and Councilmen Bankhead and McKinley fail to lead, but they joined with those who downplayed this horror. They tried to cover it up and circle the wagons. Their actions were cowardly."

Fullerton's police department has been plagued by scandals, including officers accused of theft, illegal drug use, and even having sex in a squad car. Apparently, Fullerton residents had enough of this and the Thomas death was the spark for a mini-revolt. Residents protested and—this is key—kept up the pressure on City Hall even as the investigation dragged on. Another key was having a local businessman willing to pay for the recall election, which has kept the fires of anger and real change alive in the ensuing months.

Recall advocates have focused on other legitimate issues also, ones that are broad enough to hold onto that non-partisan coalition. For instance, Jones, Bankhead, and McKinley have been advocates for eminent-domain-abusing, tax-squandering redevelopment projects throughout the city's downtown. They have failed to rein in pension costs. McKinley is himself a pension-abuse poster child, a double-dipper who receives $215,000 a year. All three defended a water tax that has been ruled illegal, with McKinley complaining about "knee jerk" efforts to return the money to the public. Furthermore, the replacement candidates come from across the political spectrum, thus keeping this from becoming a Republican v. Democrat grudge match.

A news story reported that "legal experts caution that the footage doesn't tell the entire story." But anyone who has watched the videotape and looked at the response from those three city leaders has seen enough. We'll see what happens in June, but the Fullerton reaction shows that Americans can accomplish far more than they think if they think locally and act locally.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.