Panelists: Former Fullerton City Councilwoman Pam Keller and Rusty Kennedy, CAHRO board member and chief executive officer of Orange County Human Relations.
Keller: Really hard story to talk about. Fullerton police get call that a man was breaking into cars. Kelly was there. He had a backpack that didn’t belong to him. They were questioning Kelly. He was mentally ill. He was not responding in the way they wanted him to. It kept escalating. Pretty soon there were six officers and it started to become violent. It got to point where Kelly was screaming for his father, “Please help me! I can’t breath.” He was on life support for five days and ended up dying from that assault.
Our community was distraught. What went wrong? And we started blaming and pointing fingers. “It’s you’re fault police. City council it’s your fault. Mayor it’s your fault.” Everybody blaming, but no one willing to take responsibility themselves.
Kennedy: How did the HRC get called into this? What is our role in this?
The city manager called us and asked for a consult. That started the ball rolling. That call was based on years of trust building.
We also had a relationship with the police chief, helping to define hate crimes, training police offices in conflict resolution. Working with the chief was another natural aspect based on years of building relationships.
As advocates, you stand up and talk about what you think is best. To have a relationship with somebody is to think about their perspective, consult with them before condemning them. That’s a slower process. It takes more time. But that’s the type of relationship that puts you at the table when a crisis come about.
We consulted with shelter providers, the religious community and housing people. There was this issue of prosecution of those officers. That is one box. We have some internal needs to review of practices of the police department, comprehensive training of police officers in dealing with mentally ill. We were pulling together a comprehensive planning process and say we can do better than this. When did it become normal to drive by a severely mentally ill person spiraling out of control and ignore it?
Keller: We had people on corners and at city hall with signs, with police officers’ heads on sticks. They were very, very angry and they were right to be angry. The first three hours of council meetings were filled with screaming and sometimes threats to city council members. Some council members advised not to respond. All of this was going on and sides getting drawn. That was the turmoil in our city.
A homeless and mentally ill task force was created that included representatives from shelters, faith based groups, and the OC human relations. The city council left it open. If we missed someone, it told the task force, you can add those people Among those added was Kelly Thomas’ father.
Kennedy: we started with the conversations with the personal, “my family member, my child., mentally ill.” We included everyone in process. We started each meeting and had everybody introduce themselves, even when there were 50 people. We always allowed individuals from the audience to participate, even when we broke into small groups. This type of respectful inclusion helped us to bring the pubic into it and give them a sense that this was different. It helped channel some of that outage into a positive process.
Keller: We took conversation to three different locations in the town we made a point to invite the homeless and ask them for their input.
Kennedy: Instead of coming into our venues, we were going out to their venues. We were in the process of trying to educate ourselves, to move a community from a core of outrage to a plan for how we can do better.
Recommendations included a multi-service homeless shelter, mentally ill housing that includes some care, county health care mental health professionals assigned to work with the police department.
Keller: We needed to look at what we, as a city, are going to do. Some of the solutions were simple: Bathrooms open 24, seven. Somewhere to store their stuff.
The issue now is trying to get consensus on where the shelter should be placed.