The father of a mentally ill homeless man who died after a violent confrontation with police in an Orange County suburb is calling for the toughest sanctions possible against the officers, but experts said Tuesday that winning a conviction of any type could be tough.
Even though several videos depict parts of the July 5 bloody encounter between Kelly Thomas, 37, and six officers in Fullerton, previous cases have shown repeatedly that simply capturing the use of force on tape is often not enough to prosecute.
"Police officers are police officers," said Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Not everyone is going to be prepared to convict them for what some might see as them doing their job."
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said his office is trying to determine whether officers used excessive force. The officers were investigating reports of someone burglarizing cars at a transit hub and tried to search Thomas' backpack when they got into a fight with him.
The police have said Thomas fled and resisted arrest.
A bystander with a cell phone recorded the incident from a distance, and in the footage, Thomas can be heard screaming out for his father. A bus surveillance tape showed agitated witnesses describing how officers beat Thomas and repeatedly used a stun gun on him.
City surveillance footage that has not been made public is also believed to depict the incident.
Thomas suffered severe head and neck injuries and was taken off life support July 10.
His death has become a lightning rod for protest in Fullerton, prompting hundreds to stand outside the police station and demand the resignation of police Chief Michael Sellers. A singer from a nearby town has even written a ballad about the case.
Rackauckas said he had not seen any evidence the officers intended to kill Thomas, but he has not ruled out any charges and his office is trying to expedite the criminal investigation by adding extra investigators.
The coroner's office has not determined a cause of death because it is waiting for the results of toxicology tests.
Rackauckas said prosecutors generally can file murder charges if they find that officers acted with such malice that it approached an intent to kill. He said prosecutors could also file involuntary manslaughter charges if they find that the officers used excessive force.
Ron Thomas, the dead man's father, said he believed his son was the victim of a hate crime and was targeted because he was homeless and mentally ill. Though investigations are ongoing into the incident, he said he believed one officer had repeatedly struck his son in the face and that showed an intention to kill him.
"They kept beating and beating his face," he said. "What was the intent? It certainly wasn't apprehension."
Police spokesman Sgt. Andrew Goodrich said he would not comment on assertions made by Ron Thomas, but said he was confident the district attorney would conduct a full and fair investigation.
Goldman, the Loyola professor, said police officers are trained to see danger when often there is none, for instance assuming everyone they approach could be armed or on drugs. Even videos that appear to depict cut-and-dry instances of police brutality often only show a limited snapshot of an incident, he said.
In this case, the surveillance videos don't show every detail of the confrontation, Susan Kang Schroeder, the district attorney's chief of staff, has said.
"What studies tend to show is not that officers lie, but officers tend to interpret certain situations more menacingly than does the general public," Goldman said.
Perhaps the nation's most notorious video depicting police use of force was the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991. Four white LAPD officers were acquitted, triggering outrage and rioting in some black communities.
"Though a camera can be 100 percent accurate ... the perspective of the camera is different from that of an officer." said Harland Braun, who successfully defended one of the Los Angeles police officers accused in the case.
In Fullerton, the city manager wants an independent consultant to conduct an internal investigation into police department procedures in the wake of Thomas' death and will ask the City Council to approve hiring Michael Gennaco to lead the probe.
"We will be looking at training, supervision, policies, procedure and the way these cases are investigated," said Gennaco, a specialist in examining law enforcement agencies and chief attorney for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight committee that monitors the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Watkins can be reached at http://twitter.com/thomaswatkins