Over the weekend, I attended the 36th Annual California Peace Officer Memorial ceremonies with my wife. Most years, we combine our anniversary with the trip to Sacramento to pay homage to law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty over the previous year. This year, 8 officers were enrolled from the past year, 3 officers from the recent past and 7 officers from the distant past. The officers in this last class go back as far as 1850.
So, last weekend I, along with about 2,000 other peace officers, stood at the side of the fallen officers’ survivors to see their loved ones names inscribed upon the granite memorial that is located across from the West entrance of the State Capitol. Attorney General Kamala Harris, Senator Lou Correa and Governor Jerry Brown stood with us. It was a humbling sight to see several hundred officers who drove their department units in convoy parked their vehicles next to the memorial. Each family was escorted from the Capitol building, where a private ceremony was held, to the memorial where a more public event took place.
This year’s enrollees included:
Officer Thomas R. Adams
CHP – Garberville
EOW: February 15, 2011
Officer Jermaine A. Gibson, Sr.
Cathedral City Police Dept.
EOW: March 19, 2011
Officer Andrew S. Garton
Hawthorne Police Dept.
EOW: May 26, 2011
Officer Daniel R. Ackerman
Buena Park Police Dept.
EOW: July 30, 2011
Officer Ryan E. Stringer
Alhambra Police Dept.
EOW: July 10, 2011
Officer Jeremy N. Henwood
San Diego Police Dept.
EOW: August 7, 2011
Officer James L. Capoot
Vallejo Police Dept.
EOW: November 17, 2011
Officer Anthony A. Giniewicz
Signal Hill Police Dept.
EOW: December 7, 2011
It was coincidental that the ceremony to honor these officers was held on the eve of the preliminary hearing of two Fullerton Police Department officers who have been accused in the beating death of
Kelly Thomas, a homeless man and son of a law enforcement officer. This tragedy overshadows the honor we paid to those in Sacramento. And, I believe it is why we saw fewer peace officers representing their departments this year. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that the accused, Officers, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, would go to trial. Orange County District Attorney, Tony Rackauckus, vowed to move swiftly to prosecute. My experience has been that neither side wants to move in haste. So, we may or may not see a trial by the end of the year.
The officers maintain the death of Thomas was not caused at their hands. They claim they were fighting for their lives with an out of control schizophrenic they legitimately stopped to investigate after numerous complaints. After watching the video cued with the audio from the officers’ recording devices, it is hard to believe this was anything less than a brutal beating at their hands. Yet, neither side wants anything less than justice. The family looks for closure they may never find, even through a successful prosecution. The officers look for vindication of their acts. Both sides are prepared to do battle and much of that has already taken place in the press.
On the day Rackauckus filed papers in court accusing the officers of murder and manslaughter, he gave a vivid accounting of the beating that took place. He outlined the reasons for filing the charges on the officers. Many of us in the law enforcement community believe he had no choice; that public opinion was so strong in the case, the filing of charges was a forgone conclusion. Ramos’ attorney, John Barnett, seemed to be of the same mind when, in a post hearing press conference, he maintained his client’s innocence, saying the emergency medical workers and not the officers caused Thomas’ death. In any case, he maintained that his client would not go to trial for murder. The DA says otherwise, that he would fight to have any of the charges reduced or dismissed.
It is important to note that law enforcement officers, by and large, serve our communities with honor and pride. They do their jobs quietly and without much fanfare. The only thing they ask in return is a decent salary and working conditions. Unfortunately, there is that one-tenth of one percent that bring discredit and shame to the rest of us. And, it is just as unfortunate that the public will long remember the names of the two officers accused of savagely beating a homeless man rather than the eight men who died in the line of duty last year. What’s most unfortunate? I would say it is the mistrust the involved officers and others who have committed similar acts throughout the country, have generated for the public, who now see every incident involving police, as a potential “Thomas” incident.
In the aftermath of the beating, the public was afraid of being stopped by the police. Many police officers were afraid to do their job. In speaking with a co-worker who knows officers in the Fullerton PD, she said they are “minding their P’s and Q’s”, doing everything by the book and taking every concern or complaint seriously. In many ways, that is what the public would expect, nothing less.
I have to believe the police department in our town Tustin is a cut above the rest. Chief Scott Jordan is a consummate professional who demands the best from his people. He has put into place institutional safeguards, such as the Chief’s Advisory Board, to ensure he keeps his finger on the pulse of the community. And, most importantly, he listens to his own people who, by and large, have the utmost respect for his leadership.
Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas’ dad, will go on with his life as will the rest of their family. Fullerton will heal and, hopefully, forgive their city fathers for the unspeakable acts they attempted to cover up. The communities in Orange County and the State will, for the time being, hold a different view of their police and that is unfortunate. Police departments are in defense mode and that, too, is unfortunate. Maybe we can one day, as another beating suspect long ago said in his now famous press conference, “all just get along.”