By Doug Vehle, The Daily Bosco
Whether your reaction is "The chief is gone, long live the chief" or "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," it's time to admit that the departure of Chief Sellers doesn't change much just yet. At some point the rank and file will start to recognize their former Chief was throwing them collectively under the bus just to keep his own face from becoming associated with the crisis. That's just taking this code of silence thing way too seriously. Maybe they realize this already.
We may not be finished with the Kelly Thomas story, but Fullerton PD is in a great position to move on, independent reviewer or no. The public finger pointing should shift further in the direction of city hall, if it continues. Even with the various investigations continuing, the matter has advanced to a stage where it feels like the other shoe has dropped, it's time to look elsewhere for excitement.
Fullerton PD is also in the position of having to rebuild their reputation. No amount of spin doctoring or whining that no one recognizes all the things you do, etc., is going to turn this around. It's like the American Revolution and one of the early heroes writing about going unappreciated after the war. He had captured Fort Ticonderoga, several times halted British advances with smaller forces, all at his own cost without being reimbursed by the Continental Congress. He was such a hero at the Battle of Saratoga there is a monument to him in honor of the wound that left him crippled for life. The problem is a single event really can outweigh all the rest. That man, the greatest hero the American Revolution had by the time of the Battle of Saratoga, was in fact Benedict Arnold. One event really can outweigh all else.
So no idle rhetoric or PR campaign will mean anything. The entire city is waiting to see just how well Fullerton PD can strike back, without striking a blow.
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For maybe a dozen Fullerton PD officers there would be no time for briefing before a recent Saturday evening began. A call to a nearby park would send them streaming to their cars and meeting up with the outgoing day shift. Reports went out of what could be two dozen Fullerton cop cars converging with shotguns and M16's for what might be a test, although it was no drill. In the shadow of the current controversy, all threats become darkened and harder to see. But as in the Pakistani proverb, 'Every man in this village is a liar,' you're going to have to enter that village anyway. A gun, however, should turn out to be telling the truth: If it's fired, the bullets will be real.
I was a short distance away as this was occurring. A man asked a cashier why as many as 20 cop cars were lined up at the park around the corner. Since I can't really write about it if I don't see it, I was immediately on my way to find out why. With the theory already forming in my head. While I have only spotty information of what specifically occurred, I feel certain I can piece together a recreation that Fullerton PD would agree was pretty spot on, unless they just didn't want to admit it publicly, there's some speculation about a touchy subject here. This not only from some knowledge of the procedure, but also from past experience.
It was a quiet Saturday on La Brea Blvd some years back. Billy forgot something in his car. The very image of Robert Blake playing the TV character 'Baretta,' he didn't bother going to the corner to cross at the light, but started his heavy footed run through the traffic in the middle of the block. Right in front of an LAPD patrol car. As in he could have been run down. The lights when on, Billy's hands went in the air and he laughed as he started shouting "Don't shoot." We were laughing, this was pure Billy running right into trouble again. As the police officer emerged from the car I shouted "Didn't they teach you about looking both ways before you cross the street?" More laughter from us, but not the cop; she looked askance at us as she walked toward him. I was getting the eyeball in particular.
As two more cars raced onto the scene, a helicopter appeared overhead. The jokes started about so many cops showing up, including my impression of Arlo Gutherie/'Alice's Restaurant' ". . . .Because it was the CRIME of the CENTURY and EVERYONE wanted to be in the newspaper STORY. . . ." But the new arrivals weren't just making a follow up, they came out of the car ready to go to work, taking up position between Billy and ourselves. And the helicopter was circling the neighborhood. Out of earshot for us, Billy would jokingly ask "All this for ME????" And she would tell him---YES!
A few nights earlier, perhaps on the very block were we stood, LAPD had another of their business as usual controversies. A homeless woman was suspected of stealing, they meant to search her shopping cart. It wasn't really her cart, it was stolen, after all. But if you've dealt with the homeless, you know how possessive they can be over the few things in their possession. The object she attacked with would prove to be a screwdriver, but not before the woman lay dead.
And if you know anything about those sudden outpourings against perceived injustice, you realize that a lot of preplanning goes into making them so spontaneous. It's not easy causing an accidental uprising, I pointed out to the others that the helicopter was looking for a staging area for the out of the blue riot. They laughed even harder at that than they had at Billy, but those two cops were giving me some real hard looks as I was talking. If the out of the blue riot did happen, they must have figured they knew who the leader was.
Well now, have you figured out there WAS no riot? These things are rare enough, but it doesn't hurt to be ready. If the matter had reached a boiling point, you could expect that the backup officers were to act as an extraction team to get the one writing the ticket out of there. They'd leave this to Metro, LAPD's good squad, who would arrive dragging their hairy knuckles into the crowd. . . .
But Fullerton PD has no Metro squad, they're not cut out for big city type insurrection. They're better suited to moments as happened in the early morning hours just before. A loud crash had woke my neighborhood in the middle of the night. The elderly in an assisted living home, a county social worker, various people peered out of their homes as shrill voices screamed back and forth from a house no different from the others on the outside. Fullerton PD officers arrived shortly, continually shining a flashlight in the direction of the social workers home. Probably he hovered outside, awaiting an opportunity to meddle in the proceedings, but the flashlight seemed a warning from a cop with no idea who he was, of "We know you're there, don't get any ideas."
A man was sent away, a woman who had been saying nothing was wrong then began to tell of the physical part of the latest fight. Easy to imagine what the loud crash might have been. But the biker gang boyfriend was now gone, the woman he was living off of alone with her children. The now forlorn looking house seemed to warn of the troubles within as it spent the rest of the evening with every light on. Hard to call this a happy ending, but peace had returned. How would this story have progressed without the police? Or if they hadn't been able to handle it without striking a blow?
In a predominately bedroom community, you can find a lot of success if you can handle the domestic squabbles. But they don't all happen in the home. And they don't all end so quickly.
The Saturday evening shift was preceded with a greeting by the ongoing demonstrations over the death of Kelly Thomas; in their minds messages like "Shame on FPD" and "You cannot hide behind a code of silence" roughly translating to 'Tie both hands behind your back when you work.'
Did they really miss their briefing? I believe they'll have a 6pm shift that should be meeting about that time. The norm in law enforcement in recent years is for 12 hour days, 6am to 6pm, 6pm to 6am, and 3pm to 3am. My source that witnessed the line of black and whites coming off the lot almost bumper to bumper paints a picture that convinces me that yes, they were all in one place at the station, of one mind, when the call came that there was a group in the park that was fighting, with gunplay appearing to be part of it. Apparently they all moved at once. I think it's a good guess that, even if the briefing began, they didn't have a chance to finish.
What they've undoubtedly been briefed on in recent weeks is the same possibility that LAPD had faced in their own case of the death of a homeless suspect: Someone might be planning a spontaneous riot. Assuming the park has a camera, they could be observing a small number of the gathering in an altercation, with others seeming to ignore it all. Are they used to such a scene between these combatants, or is there another reason this doesn't hold their interest?
Witnesses at the park didn't paint a picture of a major showdown once the police got there. By the time I arrived they'd taken up positions next to all the picnic benches which had people seated. While what appeared to be two groups of combatants that had been separated talked it out, (One seeming to want to continue fighting even with the police there) mostly people were laughing and shaking their heads as they ate. People were allowed to leave, one said that the mother of the child whose birthday it was became angry that the father had brought his new girlfriend. She said "Baby Mama Drama." As the matter seemed settled, the officers drifted away one or two at a time, eyes rolling, a little laughter. Quite the successful operation, noone got hurt.
And that's the way it's supposed to be. The Police aren't supposed to be bragging 'We're heart breakers and life takers.' As one family left, a woman was griping to noone in particular "This is my first time coming to Fullerton, look how the police act." I told her it was lucky that noone in there was homeless. I don't think she got it. But no matter how agitated those cops were before they arrived, nothing happened. Which is a good sign. Maybe there really were additional people in the cul-de-sac nearby, scared off by the sheer numbers. Best not to find out.
Right now would be a good time for Fullerton PD officers to remind themselves how good they have it. They tell themselves otherwise, but they're kept separate from so many of the problems of this world. I remember years ago when a psychotic California Highway Patrolman arrived at the side of the road and inexplicably started screaming "I deal with the scum of the earth, I. . . I . . . I . . . ." I asked him if he meant everyone in the State of California, or just his fellow Highway Patrolmen, which seemed to embarrass him into honoring the code of silence. Truth be told, law enforcement sees far less of the seamy side of life than most of us, because it flees them and inflicts itself on us. A neighbor remarked that the Mongol biker would smile and wave while he was high during his months on the block. The police were fortunate to only spend a few minutes with him. Do you know how many things disappeared from my garage, my truck in the driveway, etc., WHILE I WAS HOME in the time he's been here? If I'd bothered to report it, the officer would spend a few minutes here then go park under a tree to write a report. I'm the one going on dealing with the scum of the earth in the neighborhood, he'd get to go on calls where they're not bad people at all.
I saw a few weeks ago when the police took the marijuana from a pair of teenagers and ground it into the pavement without arresting them. I also saw the homeless man that had shouted "Murderers" over and over from across the street go and scrape it up after the police left. (I hope he decided they weren't so bad after all.) As the kids came out of the nearby store, the homeless man was smoking it with his buddies, calling out "That's gooooood )#W%*, you should have just picked it up yourself." The kids laughed and said they'd just get more. I waited and watched because, post modernist that I am, I knew something like this would happen as soon as the one was grinding it on the road. The movies aren't this good these days. It would be a good thing for them to admit they don't have it nearly so figured out as they like to pretend.
The police came around later looking for the biker, apparently there's a warrant for his arrest afterall. But he appears to be gone. The lights are still on all night in that house, no telling when that will end. But it doesn't really end. You just get used to it. Like the way the Saturday morning cops have started smiling at the protesters in front of the police department.