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Fullerton's interim police chief speaks out following controversy

August 11, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Fullerton's interim police chief is speaking out for the first time after the city's top cop took an indefinite medical leave following a controversial fallout from a confrontation involving six officers and a homeless man who later died from his injuries.

The new acting Fullerton Police Chief Kevin Hamilton began his first day in his new position Thursday, taking over after Chief Michael Sellers was placed on medical leave by his doctor Wednesday. Hamilton, the commander of the detective division, has been with the department since 1979.

"It was a big responsibility to take on, but I'm very happy to do it," said Hamilton. "I know the chief's leave is for a minimum of 30 days. I don't know if it will continue beyond that. That's an issue that's private between he and his doctors and the city."

The change comes after two Fullerton City Council members, including Sharon Quirk-Silva, called for Sellers to step down.

"I'm a little bit shocked and I am concerned about our chief's health," said Quirk-Silva.

Friends, family and other supporters of 37-year-old Kelly Thomas have also been calling on Sellers to step down.

On July 5, six Fullerton officers were investigating reports of someone burglarizing cars at a transit hub. When officers tried to search Thomas' backpack, he resisted arrest and reportedly tried to flee. He was allegedly Tasered and beaten while officers arrested him.

Thomas, who was suffering from schizophrenia, was hospitalized with severe head and neck injuries. Days later, his family took him off life support.

The six officers involved are on leave as the Orange County District Attorney's Office determines whether the officers used excessive force when they were trying to arrest Thomas.

The incident has sparked protests and outrage. Supporters say that by going on medical leave, Sellers is just side-stepping the controversy.

"It's just a precursor and a way to disguise what's really happening. He's going to end up resigning. No doubt they want him to be out of the limelight right now, but it's not going to slow things down," said Thomas' father, Ron Thomas, a former Orange County Sheriff's Department deputy.

Hamilton said he believes residents may have lost confidence in the Fullerton Police Department due to the incident, but he hopes to rebuild their trust through their actions going forward.

Ron Thomas said he's pleased that Hamilton was appointed as acting chief, calling him well-respected.

"Since the beginning of this, he's never steered me wrong. There were things he couldn't tell me, but I never thought for a moment he was lying to me," said Thomas' father, Ron Thomas.

The Fullerton City Council has ordered a special meeting for Friday. They are also expected to vote on a recommendation by the city manager to hire an independent consultant who would look at the policies and procedures of the department.

The Orange County District Attorney's Office is reviewing footage from a surveillance camera that shows the bloody confrontation between the officers and Thomas. That video has not yet been released.

In video posted on YouTube taken by a witness with a cellphone camera, Thomas can be heard screaming for his father as he was Tasered by police.

The coroner's office has not determined a cause of death because it is waiting for the results of toxicology tests.

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