The first public report on the investigation into the July 2011 beating death of a homeless Fullerton man called for improved processes within city law enforcement but found "no evidence of intent to deceive or falsify" on the part of Fullerton police in the aftermath of the death.
Kelly Thomas, 37, died five days after a nightime altercation involving six police officers at a Fullerton bus stop. His death unleashed a firestorm of criticism over police handling of the incident.
"The Fullerton Police Department did not intend to deceive or falsify information," investigator Michael Gennaco told the Fullerton City Council, echoing the content of the 5 1/2-page report.
The report, which skirts the question of excessive force at the heart of the debate over the incident, gently chides the department for a series of missteps following Thomas' "tragic in-custody death," including releasing the dead man's mugshot from an unrelated event and failing to correct misinformation about the extent of officer injuries related to the altercation.
"The question of how much information to release after a high profile incident and when has bedeviled law enforcement for a long time," Gennaco wrote.
"There is inherent tension between the public's legitimate interest in learning some initial facts about the incident versus the potential that preliminary information gathered early in the process may not prove to be accurate."
Officer Manuel Ramos has been charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.
Officer Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. The other four responding officers were placed on administrative leave.
Contflicting early accounts of the beating that led to Thomas' death fueled suspicions that the police were being less than honest; some reports falsely indicated that two officers may have suffered broken bones while trying to subdue Thomas.
The misinformation did not stem from an intent to deceive, according to Gennaco, but rather from the confusion surrounding the event and a lack of follow-through.
Two officers did undergo medical evaluation, and one required surgery for a shoulder injury, but "it is unclear whether his elbow was ever actually fractured," wrote Gennaco, an investigator with Pasadena-based OIR Group, which according to its website previously investigated an officer-involved shooting for the city of Pasadena.
In addition, the report is careful to note that investigators could not say "how the officers acquired their injuries," but only "that after the incident two officers did receive some medical attention."
Ultimately, Gennaco wrote, there were "no 'broken bones,' " but the police department never officially corrected the error.
The incident offered a "stark reminder of the need to (1) get the information right," be clear about the tentative nature of information being released, and quickly and forcefully corrrect any errors, he wrote.
The misinformation perpetuated by the police led some critics to question the veracity of their claim that they confronted Thomas in response to a call for service, Gennaco found.
He retrived a copy of the dispatch recording on which a woman calls from the parking lot near the bus station to alert police of a shirtless man carrying a backpack "roaming the parking lot" "looking in cars" and "pulling on handles."
Police who arrived on the scene discovered that the backpack Thomas was carrying contained papers belonging to an attorney and called dispatch to find out whether the owner had reported stolen mail.
Before they heard back, "the force incident was underway," according to Gennaco.
Police later learned that the attorney had discarded the mail and that another person had inadvertently left the backpack, which also contained a passport and employee identification, at a nearby train station.
"The evidence indicates that the initial search of the backpack provided sufficient reason for the responding officers to continue their investigation into the content found therein even if eventually it was learned that the attorney correspondence was nothing more than discarded mail," Gennaco wrote.
Gennaco questioned how information was handled following the altercation, and debunked some initial reports.
Police fomented public outrage in releasing a booking photo from a 2009 trespassing incident that had nothing to do with the case at hand, and did so despite the fact that Thomas was not a suspect but a "deceased potential victim," Gennaco found.
"The release by law enforcement of an unflattering booking photo of an individual who has died at the hands of police officers creates potential for the germination of inferences that the release was intended to portray Mr. Thomas in a negative light," Gennaco wrote. "Those inferences, in fact, did occur in this case."
Tuesday’s report left many unanswered questions, according to council members and Thomas' family.
“That’s all it is,” said Ron Thomas, the victim’s father. “It’s just a start.”
Council members were concerned that a major piece of the investigative puzzle – a city surveillance camera that captured the incident – may never be made public.
"They’ve had to make a legal leap that says, as part of this investigation, that surveillance video is part of each officer’s personnel record," said Fullerton Councilman Bruce Whitaker.
Another report will be released detailing whether the Fullerton Police Department followed the proper policies and procedures immediately after the altercation.