An FBI expert on use of force testified today that two former Fullerton police officers on trial for the fatal beating of a mentally ill homeless man failed to follow proper procedures in their attempts to subdue the suspect.
John Wilson Jr. was asked to critique the actions of ex-Officer Manuel Ramos and ex-Cpl. Jay Cicinelli as video of their July 5, 2011, encounter with Kelly Thomas at the Fullerton Transportation Center was played for jurors.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who questioned Wilson this morning, was repeatedly interrupted by objections from defense attorneys, many of which were upheld by Orange County Superior Court William Froeberg. The attorneys twice met privately with the judge to discuss the line of questioning.
Cathy Thomas left the room sobbing as video of her son being beaten was played in the courtroom. One juror could be seen wiping her eyes as the video was shown.
Wilson testified that he spent 60 hours reviewing numerous documents, as well as video and digital audio recordings, to prepare for the trial. He was paid $200 per hour, and $90 for transit while traveling from Virginia to California.
Wilson testified that eight "tactical principles" have been established for instruction of officers in how to handle encounters with suspects. The top principle is safety, he said.
The other principles involve gathering intelligence, planning, communicating with a partner and the suspect, taking cover or hiding, controlling the situation, making sure officers have superior firepower, and how to assess and adapt to evolving situations, Wilson testified.
Wilson suggested that when a call came in that someone was trying to break into cars at the Fullerton Transportation Center -- Thomas was initially suspected, but cleared of involvement -- the officers should have cruised through the parking lot to look for clues of thefts from vehicles such as broken glass or interior lights on in cars. The officers should have also considered contacting the tipster who called from the nearby Slidebar nightclub, he said.
Instead, Ramos and ex-Officer Joe Wolfe confronted Thomas because he matched the description of the suspect. Ramos' uniform and his unholstered baton presented Thomas with a "show of force," Wilson said.
"The display of a baton is going to put this person into a defensive position," Wilson testified.
Ramos can be seen and heard on the video pestering Thomas to give him his name, with Thomas offering up sarcastic replies. Both grew more irritated as the questioning continued.
At one point, Thomas told Ramos, "Just take me to jail and get it over with," providing a safe moment for the officer to take the transient into custody, Wilson testified.
"This is a perfect opportunity ... that offers the least amount of risk," he said.
Rackauckas also questioned Wilson about Ramos turning away from Thomas at one point during the encounter. Wilson testified that it's "dangerous to turn your back" on a suspect, especially one who has not been frisked, as was the case with Thomas.
The exchange between Ramos and Thomas grew more heated after Wolfe went through the transient's backpack and found letters addressed to an attorney that the officers suspected -- wrongly as it turned out -- were stolen.
Ramos put on latex gloves, an indication to the suspect that the officer was going to get physical with Thomas and wanted to avoid bodily fluids, Wilson testified. When the witness added that it was "tactically, not a sound thing to do," Ramos' attorney, John Barnett, successfully objected.
When Ramos put his fists up to Thomas, threatening to attack him if the suspect did not obey his commands, there was no indication that Thomas was about to be arrested, Wilson said upon questioning by Rackauckas.
After Ramos and Wolfe struck Thomas with their batons as he tried to run from the officers and had him pinned down, they repeatedly ordered him to put his hands behind his back and to "relax," with the transient apologizing and protesting that he cannot comply, according to the video.
Wilson said the "pain-compliance tactic" should have been suspended at that point so officers could see if Thomas would then acquiesce to their commands, but the officers continued to struggle with him.
"You have to give them an opportunity to respond to it, so you can plan your next step," Wilson said.
Wilson also testified that it was "not be good proper police procedure" for Cicinelli to strike Thomas with the butt of a stun gun.
"Those strikes to the head were in excess of what a reasonable officer would use to gain control of the situation," Wilson said, drawing an objection from defense attorneys and compelling Froeberg to wipe out the expert's reply from the court record.
Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.
-- City News Service