Archives for category: Kelly Thomas

Your tax dollars at work.

Your tax dollars at work.

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

—George Orwell

It is no accident that our modern author most revered for his insights into authoritarianism also supplies the best ever quote about newspapers. George Orwell was himself a journalist prior to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, his chilling and depressingly relevant masterpiece about a totalitarian state where the government exercises complete control over printed information. Prior to adopting his now famous pseudonym, the author, whose real name was Eric Blair, was also a police officer in what was then the British colony of Burma, a position that gave him direct experience with armed authority over a subjugated population.

The title of OC Register columnist David Whiting’s recent story about police public relations firm Behind the Badge should recall Mr. Orwell’s definition of journalism.  His June 20 column,  Revealing what’s ‘Behind the Badge’: Paid for by police and taxpayers, but how much does that matter? is undoubtably a reaction to a story from the Voice of OC website by Thy Vo, published on June 1, entitled Website Blurs Line Between Journalism and PR.

OC Register columnist David Whiting ponders whether or not paid public relations is any different than what his newspaper does for free.

OC Register columnist David Whiting ponders whether or not paid public relations is any different than what his newspaper does for free.

The Rag, of course, brought this issue to light way back on December 12, 2013, in a post entitled The OC Register and Fullerton Police, Partners in Propaganda. We pointed out that the Fullerton Police Department was paying a public relations company called Cornerstone Communications, who publishes a website called Behind the Badge OC, to write positive stories about the FPD, and that the OC Register was uncritically publishing those stories with inadequate acknowledgment to readers that they were generated by a paid PR firm led by former OC Register reporter Bill Rams.

Even the Register’s own David Medzerian later called for the Behind the Badge website to carry “a more prominent disclaimer so readers know who’s paying for it” in a March 29, 2015 column called What’s hidden ‘Behind the Badge’?

And why should we taxpayers be funding a public relations firm to write stories about our own police department, when that department’s union actively funds the campaigns of candidates for Fullerton City Council?

This brazenly political effort to improve the image of the FPD goes back to a 2012 report produced by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review (OIR) about the state of the Fullerton Police Department in the wake of the beating death of the schizophrenic homeless Kelly Thomas the previous year. In that report the OIR recommended that the Fullerton Police Department communicate better with the public following “incidents”. Was hiring a PR firm to do nothing but write rosy stories about police what they had in mind?

Some may agree that using a PR firm might be a good example of outsourcing specialized skills to private sector professionals, but one has to question the intent of the contract with Cornerstone Communications and the results of their work. Shouldn’t the purpose of the PR work be to better inform Fullerton residents about their police department’s actions? At the very least, we should feel like we know something more about how police operate in our community.

David Whiting’s recent column quotes Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes as justifying the expense: “The community wants to know their police department better,” and “These stories are an extremely effective way to communicate.”

Communicate what?  Readers of Behind the Badge won’t find valuable insights about how police work in their city. Instead, the site’s Fullerton page is loaded with stories about remembering a long dead officer, a  profile of a volunteer senior citizen, the Special Olympics, and (no kidding) the FPD being honored at a kickball match. These stories are grouped under the “features” heading, but dominate the page, with accompanying pictures, while the “news” section has only one story that might actually qualify as news. Nowhere to be found, for example, is a report on the annual audit of the FPD by Michael Gennaco’s Office of Independent Review, which would make a really good news story that would be of great interest to Fullerton residents.

Behind the Badge’s Fullerton page also has a link that is supposed to lead directly to the FPD’s own website, but at press time it led here:

We're sorry we don't use the money you pay us to fix broken links...

We’re sorry we don’t use the money you pay us to fix broken links…

The link (perhaps repaired by the time you read this post) is supposed to lead  to the FPD’s own website, replete with more Behind the Badge generated pabulum for your consumption.

David Whiting’s recent column asks, pointlessly, whether or not what Cornerstone Communications produces is journalism. Columbia University Professor Susan McGregor  has an answer for him: ‘“It sounds like the structure is designed to skew in a direction,” McGregor allows. “Then it’s just another way of doing public relations.”

Thy Vo’s Voice of OC story quotes USC journalism Professor Marc Cooper as saying “what you’ve got here is a cereal commercial, a piece of uncritical advertising that is going to convince absolutely nobody who isn’t already convinced.” Which is exactly why Bill Rams and his cohorts find it necessary to place their PR stories in actual newspapers (ok, we’ll call it that) like the OC Register, where Mr. Rams is identified only as a “guest columnist” who owns a “communications company” with specified police department clients. Any reputable newspaper would simply run the story under the heading “Paid Advertisement” unless they weren’t being paid, in which case they shouldn’t run it at all, and leave writing about the police to their staff writers—those who haven’t already fled to write for PR firms like Cornerstone.

It’s also why the taxpayers of Fullerton are being ripped off. Even if anyone thought the FPD spending between “$ 2,000 and $ 5,000” a month to have positively-skewed stories about their own police department regurgitated back to them was a good idea, they might reasonably question the effectiveness of the whole enterprise in the first place. The Voice of OC has Prof. Cooper doubting that Behind the Badge will have “any impact at all.” But perhaps Prof. Cooper misses the point of the whole endeavor.

The goal of the FPD outsourcing public communications was never to improve communication between the police and the public they serve. The goal was to keep the Fullerton City Council from creating an Independent Police Commission that might foster actual communication between the FPD and the public. In order to achieve that goal the FPD had to wipe the mud from its name following the death of Kelly Thomas at the hands of FPD officers and other ugly revelations about the department so that their union endorsement would register as a positive in the minds of enough voters to back their candidates in City Council elections. They managed it barely in 2012 with their endorsed candidate Jan Flory’s 29 vote finish ahead of police critic incumbent Travis Kiger, who had been elected just six months prior in a recall election that was all but disastrous for the FPD. Their strategy proved to be effective when the trio of Jan Flory, Doug Chaffee, and Jennifer Fitzgerald* (joined by Greg Sebourn) utterly rejected a citizen-produced plan for actual oversight in favor of hiring the Office of Independent Review for periodic and incomplete audits of the FPD.

(The Police Oversight Proposal Committee’s plan for an independent oversight commission can be found at this link:

https://fullertonrag.com/proposal-for-a-fullerton-police-commission/)

For the combined money spent on paying Cornerstone and Michael Gennaco’s OIR, the city could hire the investigators who only might be required by an Independent Police Commission. Instead, precious taxpayer dollars are paid to a PR firm to serve the interests of the police department itself, contributing nothing to public safety.

In his column, David Whiting acknowledges that “as with other public relations specialists, Rams has suggested column ideas to me and I have pursued some.” Journalists are always being courted by PR specialists to write stories benefiting their clients. What’s remarkable about Mr. Whiting is that he evidently listens to them, demonstrating the kind of relationship with a PR firm that we should find unacceptable with a politician, and unprofessional in a journalist.

“Regardless, the backers of Behind the Badge are right about the need for better connections between police and public,” concludes David Whiting, who doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that those connections might otherwise come from honest journalism in a newspaper or on a news website instead of a one-sided public relations website. Readers of the OC Register should expect the former, while Fullerton taxpayers should be outraged that they are paying for the latter. Hucksters of “hybrid journalism,” as Behind the Badge’s Bill Rams calls it, can make a living as best they can, but you and I shouldn’t have to support them. The City Council should act to end this contract with Cornerstone Communications as quickly as possible and simply require the Fullerton Police Department to be honest, timely, and transparent in communications with the city’s residents.

*Mayor Pro Tem Jennifer Fitzgerald, who is herself Vice President of the public relations firm Curt Pringle & Associates, routinely supports the police department without any funding from the Fullerton Police Officers Association, thereby keeping them from opposing her campaigns while simultaneously preserving her Republican anti-union funding credentials.

 

Note: This post was updated on June 11 to correct typographical errors and to add an image of David Whiting’s recent column.

Who wouldn't run?

Who wouldn’t run?

A front page story in the March 24 edition of the Orange County Register chronicles special training received by county police officers to deal with mentally ill people following the  death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton three and half years ago.

(When Police, Mentally Ill Collide, Tom Berg and Lou Ponsi, Associated Press, OC Register, March 24, 2015)

Though it may be encouraging to read that “First responders at many departments in Orange County – and nationwide – are required to attend sessions where they hear directly from mentally ill people,” the article still conveys the subtle suggestion that Kelly Thomas is dead  because he was schizophrenic, and that if only officers had understood his condition, he might be alive today.

The article states that “Thomas, a homeless schizophrenic, failed to follow a Fullerton police officer’s instructions and was brutally beaten as he cried out for his father, asked for help, and complained that he couldn’t breathe.” Fullerton police officers were familiar with Kelly Thomas, and should easily have understood his confusion over orders to place his hands on his knees. And even if they didn’t, and thought he was just willfully disobeying their orders, they should not have struck him first, and should have been able to restrain him without the “brutal beating” acknowledged by the authors of the Register story. Is it for lack of training in dealing with the mentally ill that Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, and Joseph Wolfe no longer work for the Fullerton Police Department?

When we read that first responders ‘learn that what looks like “resisting arrest” from an officer’s vantage point may actually be abject terror from the suspect’s vantage point. About how that terror can infuse people with uncanny strength and resistance to pain as they attempt to escape, which can escalate a confrontation,’ we cannot help but recall the reaction of Kelly Thomas to the FPD’s Manuel Ramos’ alarming and inappropriate threats of immediate violence. Abject terror would be an understandable reaction by anyone, mentally ill or not, to an armed officer donning latex gloves and saying to them “These hands are going to fuck you up.” The mentally ill have no patent on “uncanny strength and resistance to pain” in moments of extreme stress, and needn’t be singled out as unique in trying with all their might to survive a savage, unwarranted assault by multiple police officers.

Few would doubt that police officers in heavily populated areas will inevitably have to deal with unpredictable, potentially violent behavior by people suffering from mental illnesses. And while Tom Dominguez of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs is right to state in the article that “It is unrealistic to expect officers to take on the role of social workers,” de-escalation of a volatile situation should be just as routine a strategy while contending with the ostensibly sane as it is with the mentally ill.

Training police to recognize signs of mental disorders among civilians is rightfully mandatory. They, and the OC Register, should also remember to recognize pathological violence used by law enforcement against anyone, mentally ill or not.

"Anaheim"

“Anaheim” James

Rag readers will recall “Anaheim” James, who was arrested last year by the Fullerton Police Department, who sent six officers all the way to Pasadena to apprehend him for failing to disperse from a protest. Below, Fullerton resident and occasional Rag guest author Stephan Baxter describes the scene of a protest following the “not guilty” verdicts in the case of two former Fullerton Police Department officers charged in the death of Kelly Thomas. Although none of the officers were ever convicted in the killing, several protesters have been charged and jailed. Make sense to you? (Warning to sensitive readers: Bax drops the F-word a few times…).

 

“My friend Anaheim James, is one of the most peaceful protesters I know, he was in fact wearing a ‘no violence’ sign on his back when a little over a year ago a police car, filled with soft, slow, angry officers, tried to run him down at a protest we held after the verdict in the Kelly Thomas case came in. Thankfully AJ is swift of foot, he leaped over the hood of the cop car, and as these photos show, dispersed the scene like the fucking wind. Despite all evidence showing James out dispersing overpaid, and overfed fullerton officers, he was arrested 3 months later and charged with … Get this… “FAILURE TO DISPERSE A RIOT”. AJ along with Patti Beers, Juan Zuleta and Adam Adler, all friends of mine, and all equally unjustly charged, will go on trial at north court on March 11th and they are all facing six months in jail if found guilty. According to the 170 page police report, 47 uniformed officers, and multiple plain clothes officers were there to keep the peace on the day of the protest. I was there as well, and there was No fucking Riot. If there had been a riot, you know like every ordinary 2am on a Friday night, it would be the incompetence of this department which should be on trial as they outnumbered us 3-1 by the end of the day.

When the district attorney’s office goes to such great lengths, and is finally tenacious about a prosecution, in order to prosecute protesters, who like AJ, were doing nothing more than filming the police, and they do so at a protest which only came about because this same DA’s office was so incompetent and unmotivated that they could not get guilty verdicts in a murder that a nation watched unfold on national TV, there is something seriously sinister with the OC judicial system. I contend in fact that every single charge against every single protester, represents one more blow, one more boot, one more taser shot, and on moe gloved fist to the legacy of Kelly Thomas.
AJ, Patti Beers, Juan Zuleta and Adam Adler, deserve and need your support, their legal costs are mounting and the press is mostly absent on this story. Please get involved!! One victim in this case is more than enough. More info on how to donate will be posted shortly.”

Stephan Baxter, Fullerton, CA

image3

Disperse like the wind…(Photo from OC Weekly)

 

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