Last week the legal team defending Manual Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, former Fullerton Police Department officers facing charges in the beating death of Kelly Thomas two and half years ago, called as a witness one of the department’s training officers. According to news reports (see Frank Mickadeit’s reports in the OC Register), Cpl. Stephen Rubio, who trained both officers, testified that they acted within departmental policy when confronting and beating Mr. Thomas. While acknowledging that Manuel Ramos’s use of profanity might have been a “slight” violation of policy, Cpl. Rubio considered it to be a conditional threat intended to avoid a physical confrontation. He also considered Jay Cicinelli’s infamous use of his taser as a weapon to repeatedly batter Kelly Thomas’s face to be within departmental policy.
It is highly disturbing to read that any FPD officer considers bashing in the face of a person and issuing profanity laced threats to be acceptable behavior, but the fact that this opinion comes from a training officer may provide some insight into the department’s current and past standards. Chief Dan Hughes has stated in recent months that the Fullerton Police Department holds itself to “the highest standards,” but it is hard to reconcile this promise with the testimony of Cpl. Rubio.
Is it, in fact, within departmental policy to bash a man’s face repeatedly with a hard object while he is pinned to the ground? Cpl. Rubio’s statement also lays bare an awkward conundrum. If the officers were acting within department policy, then why were they fired? If they weren’t, and were fired for acting outside of policy, then why is Cpl. Rubio still training officers to do the same?
The Fullerton Police Department’s Policy Manual contains seven pages that specifically address the use of force. Under the heading 300.2.2, FACTORS USED TO DETERMINE THE REASONABLENESS OF FORCE can be found the following paragraph:
“Officers may find it more effective or practical to improvise their response to rapidly unfolding conditions they are confronting. In such circumstances, the use of any improvised device or method must nonetheless be objectively reasonable and utilized only to the degree that it is reasonable to accomplish a legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
Using a hard plastic taser as a battering weapon could arguably be justifiable if the officers were attempting to “accomplish a legitimate law enforcement purpose” that might prevent harm to someone, but Cpl. Cicinelli repeatedly bashed Kelly Thomas in the face after officers Wolfe and Ramos had needlessly escalated their initial encounter with Mr. Thomas into a violent attack. Ultimately, pursuing the “law enforcement purpose” of questioning a man to find out whether or not he had attempted a petty theft resulted in a fatality.
The use of profanity by Officer Ramos is the only tactic to which Cpl. Rubio takes exception in his testimony, ignoring the fact that the threat itself was way out of proportion to the accomplishment of any legitimate law enforcement purpose in a situation where no violence had been threatened by the man being questioned about possibly having committed a non-serious crime.
Chief Hughes has not been called to the witness stand in the trial. He is legally constrained from commenting on why both officers no longer work for the Fullerton Police Department. Nevertheless, he should be prepared to clarify to the public whether or not he considers such threats and acts of violence committed by his officers to be consistent with his department’s own policy manual. If they are not, then he should also be prepared to explain why one of his training officers thinks they are.