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Fullerton City Council considers dismantling police department

August 7, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
The Fullerton City Council was expected vote Tuesday on whether to begin a process that would eliminate the city's police department and have the Orange County Sheriff's Department take over.

The city council, which recently welcomed three new members after a recall, says the issue is one of money. Two council members said operating the police department costs tens of millions of dollars, so allowing the county sheriff to take over would save the city a lot of money, especially in management expenses. The Orange County Sheriff's Department already provides services to other cities in north Orange County, the most recent of which is Yorba Linda.

However, there is speculation that the move is in response to the death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died after a violent confrontation with police last July. Many of the council members who support dismantling the police force have been sharp critics of the department.

Mayor Pro Tem Bruce Whitaker maintains cost is the true concern.

"Had the Kelly Thomas incident not occurred, I believe it would still be our responsibility to be looking at these costs," he said.

With the city's expenditures increasing by 9 percent and revenue only increasing by 1 to 2 percent over the coming years, it makes financial sense to cut the department. Should the police department be cut, about 95 percent of Fullerton's cops would still be able to serve the public as sheriff's deputies.

Whitaker says now that three former council members have been recalled, it will be a lot easier for the city to look at the budget more objectively.

"The city is shouldering many lawsuits at the moment, including that one from [father of Kelly Thomas] Ron Thomas. And there was an earlier settlement of $1 million to Kelly's birth mom," said Whitaker.

Fullerton police officials say they will abide by whatever the city council decides, but they also say public safety is more than just about dollars and cents.

Some Fullerton residents like Scott Darrah are for the idea of allowing the sheriff's department to take over.

"As long as they get the corrupt people out and get the right people in and do the right job, that's really all that matters, as long as we feel safe," he said.

Others are not so keen on the idea.

"They're doing a pretty good job, I mean they realized they did a mistake and they got rid of the people, so I think we need to keep the police, I mean it'd be ridiculous," said Susan Montoya.

The president of the Fullerton Police Officers' Association said he thinks the move is purely motivated by politics. He also said the entire department took a pay cut last year, and he hopes the city will honor a contract it has with the department that lasts through 2015.

Fullerton's police department, which is about 100 years old and is one of the oldest in the nation, has undergone major changes in the past year. The police chief retired, three officers quit and two officers have been charged in Thomas' death.

A cost analysis of the department's dismantling would take about four months.


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