Police beating sparks needed national debate

The latest cheesy TV cop series, “Against The Wall,” is about a Chicago woman from a family of police officers who becomes a detective in the department’s internal-affairs unit. This causes outrage among her police brothers and dad, who view internal oversight work as treasonous. The trailer is filled with predictable tough-guy rhetoric about police taking care of their “own” and not ratting out each other.

This would just be silly entertainment, but I’ve covered enough police-abuse and excessive-force stories to know that such attitudes permeate every level of the law enforcement community, from internal affairs to external investigations from other agencies. When an officer is accused of abusing authority, the agencies and unions circle the wagons and offer excuses for the alleged wrong-doer that would make even an ACLU “criminal-coddling” attorney blush.

This makes it frustrating to watch how the authorities are dealing with a brutal beating death of a mentally ill homeless man named Kelly Thomas, who was beaten and Tasered repeatedly by several police officers in the north Orange County city of Fullerton on July 5. At first a local story, this has garnered national and even international media attention, which hints at growing public frustration with incidents of police brutality and secrecy.

It tells a common story and touches on the need for a broader discussion about the proper use of force —- a debate that has been dominated in recent years by police unions and their political allies rather than by civil libertarians and members of the public.

The Fullerton Police Department waited 30 days before putting the six officers on paid administrative leave, which shows how tone deaf departments can be to public concerns. The department’s spokesman released untrue information designed to suggest that Thomas was a danger to the officers —- claiming that officers suffered broken bones in the scuffle and releasing a scary-looking photo of Thomas that critics say is not him.

Police reportedly confiscated the camera of a local citizen who was recording the brutal beating that has become frighteningly typical, although other videos emerged. The police union hired an attorney to threaten legal action against the owner of a Fullerton blog (FullertonsFuture.org) that has been criticizing police actions. The blog also published a picture of Thomas’ face after the police had beaten it into a pulp, along with an obscured video from a bystander that showed the attack on Thomas, who cried out for his dad as he was being beaten.

The district attorney has been on the news commenting on the one official police video that closely shows the details of the incident, saying that there is no evidence the officers intended to kill him. But the DA won’t release the video because of fears of tainting a potential jury.

There’s not much concern that all the officials statements from police sources downplaying the incident would taint anyone. We’re all supposed to stay quiet and not rush to judgment even as official sources make their own judgments, which inevitably are protective of the officers.

Fortunately, two Fullerton council members called for the videotape’s release and for some level of accountability, but three remaining council members have been angrier at the growing number of well-behaved people who have held vigils and protests than at the beating itself. Mayor Dick Jones called protesters a “lynch type of mob.” The other two council members are retired police officers, including Pat McKinley, who was chief of police for 16 years and said on CNN that he probably hired the officers at issue.

On that national news show, McKinley complained about the “flamboyant” and “exaggerated” nature of eyewitness accounts. He focused on the need for due process for police officers and admonished the public against leaping to conclusions. He said there has been no determined cause of death and that the awful picture of the man’s face doesn’t mean he died from the beating.

I can’t imagine a council member and former police chief saying something of that sort had the incident involved six gang-bangers and the victim been a police officer.

In these cases, every benefit of the doubt is extended to the police authorities, who have admittedly tough jobs but also need much oversight in a free society.

The media and the public are told to wait until the investigation is released —- but officials know the authorities are under no obligation to release the reports, which are exempt from the California Public Records Act. They know that the state Supreme Court’s Copley decision in 2006 made it illegal for police agencies to release records of police officers accused of misconduct and that unions and their supporters in both parties shut down even modest legislative efforts to address Copley.

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, argues that California has become a “secret police state.” The DA’s office told me it will release the video and report in due time, but the law doesn’t mandate it. Rarely does pertinent information emerge until the civil trial, and sometimes settlements come with gag orders.

The good news is that the Fullerton blogger mentioned above has kept the public interest in the issue alive. KFI’s John and Ken Show in Los Angeles paid the blogger, an old friend and Fullerton businessman named Tony Bushala, a high compliment by saying that the state would be in better shape if there were someone like him in every community.

The anger on that show suggests conservatives are finally recognizing that police abuse is one of the most pernicious assaults on freedom. Perhaps the populist right is moving away from reflexive support of all things law and order that has been so common since the 9/11 tragedies.

The best lesson is that until laws change to provide more transparency, local activists are the only recourse to the “we protect our own” mentality on display not only on bad TV cop shows but in local police agencies.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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