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Homeless man's death in fight with police stirs protest in Calif. city
FULLERTON, Calif. (AP) ' Public outrage over the death of a homeless man after a violent confrontation with police shows no sign of diminishing as questions are raised about how well officers in this California city and elsewhere are trained to deal with the mentally ill.
A second City Council member on Friday called for the resignation of the Fullerton, Calif., police chief over his handling of the fallout following the death of Kelly Thomas and a protest was scheduled for Saturday outside police headquarters.
Thomas had symptoms of schizophrenia and a 16-year string of arrests for everything from assault with a deadly weapon to public urination to jaywalking. But this time, his brush with police had deadly results.
Six officers who were trying to search Thomas' backpack after reports of break-ins at a Fullerton transit hub got into a violent fight with the 37-year-old. He later died of severe head and neck injuries.
Along with the anger Thomas' death has provoked in the college town east of Los Angeles, the incident has focused attention on how and to what degree officers are trained to deal with those who are mentally ill.
Across the country, there is no rule for how much training, or what kind of training, officers should undergo. Since the mid-1980s, increasing numbers of departments have put some officers through a special training program to learn how to diffuse situations involving the mentally ill.
These so-called crisis intervention teams are often borne out of deadly incidents in which a mentally ill suspect dies in police custody or an officer is killed by a mentally ill person.
"No police officer would believe it is appropriate to kill somebody who has a mental illness," said Melissa Reuland, a consultant to the Council of State Governments Justice Center who researches this issue.
When it happens, "it is often because there has been a lack of the appropriate tools to deescalate the situation," she said.
On July 5, Thomas was sitting on a bench at a transit hub where homeless people congregate, when the officers arrived. Police said he ran when they tried to search his backpack and resisted arrest.
A bystander recorded the incident with a cell phone. A bus surveillance tape showed agitated witnesses describing how officers beat Thomas and used a stun gun on him repeatedly as he cried out for his father.
The police department has called the case an isolated incident and put the six officers on administrative leave. The FBI and the district attorney's office are investigating.
On Friday, City Councilman Bruce Whitaker joined Councilwoman Sharon Quirk-Silva in calling for Fullerton Police Chief Michael Sellers to step down. Whitaker said he's concerned the chief hasn't taken a more public role in his department's response to the incident.
"This is a tragedy for our community, and we're in the midst of an investigation," Sellers said in a statement.
The prosecutor's office said the agency is reviewing three videos of the confrontation: two tapes shot by bystanders and another from a police surveillance camera that was fixed on a light pole at the bus stop. They also have the surveillance video taken from the bus that pulled up minutes later.
"There are certain things you can see and there are certain things you can't see. I'm not going to go into specifics, but no video will ever capture everything," said Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the district attorney's office.
The agency will not release the police surveillance video because of the ongoing investigation, she said.
Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, the Fullerton police department's spokesman, could not say if the officers involved in the altercation knew Thomas, but the transit hub is around the corner from police headquarters and frequented by homeless people.
"Many of our officers were familiar with Kelly Thomas like they're familiar with many of the other homeless people in our town," he said.
On Friday, the National Alliance on Mental Illness urged the city to review its officer training programs and involve individuals and families who live with mental illness in the process.
Fullerton officers don't undergo a training program specifically dedicated to dealing with people with mental illness, Goodrich said. The department holds 30-minute in-house briefings before patrol shifts begin and Goodrich said the department would spend several sessions on mental health issues in a six-month period.
About a dozen officers from the 145-member force have received more extensive training on mental health issues. After Thomas' death, the department is taking a closer look at its training program, Goodrich said.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana. Associated Press writer Thomas Watkins contributed to this report from Los Angeles and Garance Burke from San Francisco.