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Friday, September 23, 2011

EDITORIAL: Our View: The case of the Fullerton officers: No one above law

September 22, 2011
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

WILL it make any difference, what the dispensation will be of the cases of the Fullerton police officers charged this week with murder and manslaughter in the death of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old, mentally ill homeless man?

Of course it will. The wheels of justice not only need to be set into motion; ideally, they need to take us where we need to go.

This is going to be as complicated and controversial and gut-wrenching a trial as anything this side of Rodney King. It will be long and divisive and call into question practically every aspect of the complex relationships between law-enforcement officials and the rest of society. Its resolution will not come quickly or easily.

And of course, without full access to the range of facts surrounding the case that will, we hope, come out in the trial, we don't know whether the officers are guilty of the charges.

But, without passing judgment on individual officers involved, the very fact that they were indicted on these serious felony charges says incredibly positive things about American society.

It says that we are a society ruled by law - not by lawmen. It says that while we respect our police officers, we will hold them accountable for committing crimes the same as the rest of us are held accountable. It says that while our district attorneys certainly need to work together with police offiers in collaring criminals, indicting, charging and prosecuting them, when the tables are turned - when it seems that it is the officers themselves who have broken the law - then we must not hesitate to prosecute them as well.

It says that, even as officers are almost always the good guys in pursuit of the bad guys, our society is different: Might does not in itself make right.

What an incredible balancing act we ask police officers to perform every minute of their working - and non-working - days. To protect us, and themselves, they must aggressively go after criminals and suspected criminals. Split-second decisions must be made. A Taser may be on their belts. A gun certainly is. A baton's deployment may save a life or cost a life. Which to choose when words fail? No amount of training buys perfection in an often thankless job.

Given contemporary technology, much that an officer does is recorded. And we have a place where we draw the line. In the case of Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, that place was when Fullerton police Officer Manuel Ramos pulled on latex gloves and told Kelly Thomas, "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to F you up."

Rackauckas said: "Ramos was telling Kelly Thomas at that moment that this encounter had changed. That it went from a fairly routine police investigation, a fairly routine police detention, to an impending beating by an angry police officer."

After that beating, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli kneed Thomas twice in the head and used his Taser on him four times, Rackauckas said. The corporal also hit Thomas in the face with the Taser eight times.

Thomas died several days later in a hospital.

Ramos faces second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter charges. Cicenelli faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. Four other officers involved are on paid administrative leave. That shows that in some cases, public safety employees absolutely do catch a break.

Given the dangerous nature of their work, police officers on trial for violent crimes are tougher to convict than other citizens. These will be difficult prosecutions. But the courageous decision to prosecute at all shows that, unlike in authoritarian states, no American is above the law.

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