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California town hires consultant to probe homeless man's death

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Watchdog to probe homeless man's death
  • NEW: The Fullerton City Council approves two contracts totaling $80,000
  • NEW: The contracts authorize the consultant to investigate police practices and the man's death
  • NEW: The consultant will charge the city $260 an hour
  • Kelly Thomas, 37, died five days after an altercation with arresting officers in July

Los Angeles (CNN) -- The City Council of Fullerton, California, approved Tuesday evening the hiring of an independent consultant to reform the city's police force and review last month's arrest and subsequent death of a homeless schizophrenic man, a spokeswoman said.

Before a gallery of residents angry about the death, the council voted 5-0 to award a one-year $50,000 contract to Michael J. Gennaco, a consultant whose rate is $260 an hour, to examine the police department's policies and practices, city spokeswoman Sylvia Palmer Mudrick said.

The council then approved 4-1 a second contract, also for up to a year, paying Gennaco $30,000 to prepare a public report looking at the July 5 incident involving police and the death of Kelly Thomas, Mudrick said.

Gennaco told the council he will begin investigating the death after the Orange County District Attorney's office completes its own inquiry into the incident, Mudrick said. Gennaco is currently chief attorney for a civilian oversight committee created by the Los Angeles County supervisors to monitor the sheriff's department.

Thomas, 37, died five days after what the Orange County district attorney has called "a violent and desperate struggle" last month with Fullerton police.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles attorney said he is planning to file a police brutality lawsuit in federal court this week against Fullerton officers in a new unrelated case. But one of the officers in that case was also involved in the Thomas arrest, said the attorney, Garo Mardirossian.

Mardirossian is also representing Thomas' father, Ron, who is alleging that his son was a victim of police brutality and has notified Fullerton city officials that he plans to pursue legal action against them.

Finding justice for Kelly Thomas

In the second alleged instance of police brutality, Veth Mam, 31, of Orange County, California, had an altercation with Fullerton police officers in October that was recorded on his iPhone and posted on YouTube. Mam wasn't seriously injured, Mardirossian said.

Mam, who works in an automation factory, was acquitted of battery against an officer and resisting arrest -- both misdemeanors -- last month, Mardirossian said.

On Tuesday, acting Fullerton police chief Kevin Hamilton, named to the post last week, said he was concerned about the Mam case based upon information brought to his attention. He has ordered an internal affairs investigation "to determine what happened that evening in October 2010 and the court case this year," said police spokesman Sgt.

Andrew Goodrich

"There is a strong possibility that we arrested the wrong person that night (Veth Mam)," Goodrich said in an e-mail to CNN.

Mardirossian claims the iPhone video by Mam contradicted the police report and an officer's testimony in the case.

How Fullerton police officers write their reports is also a matter of controversy in the Thomas case because officers were allowed to view a videotape of the Thomas arrest before filing their reports, Mardirossian said Tuesday.

In the federal lawsuit to be filed later this week, Mam will claim conspiracy to falsify arrest reports, conspiracy to violate the civil rights of a citizen and police brutality, Mardirossian said.

Mardirossian said the suit will support his claim that the Fullerton Police Department engages in a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations.

Fullerton Deputy City Attorney James Touchstone declined to comment Tuesday on the anticipated legal actions by Thomas' father and by Mam.

Touchstone and police spokesman Goodrich also declined to comment on Mardirossian's accusation that one Fullerton police officer was also involved in both cases.

Mardirossian identified that officer, but city officials declined to confirm the name Tuesday.

The attorney for the six officers didn't return phone calls Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Thomas' father and some angry residents have been pressing city officials to release a videotape of the six Fullerton police officers engaged in the arrest and alleged beating. City officials have declined to release the tape.

In the July 5 incident, six officers responded to reports that a man was trying to break into cars near a bus depot, according to police.

The officers have been placed on involuntary paid administrative leave, and city officials haven't released their names.

Police Chief Michael Sellers has also taken a paid medical leave, as two of the city's five council members have called upon him to resign.

Gennaco has said he will look at how Fullerton police officers wrote their reports only after watching the videotape.

He said police departments have different policies on whether officers can look at their tapes before writing their reports.

Gennaco said taxpayers could expect police "reform" out of his work.

Meanwhile, there are two external investigations into the death, by the FBI and the Orange County district attorney's office. The FBI is looking at civil rights violations.

Also, residents notified the city that they are going to start a recall petition drive for the other three members on the city council: Mayor F. Richard Jones, Mayor Pro Tem Don Bankhead and Councilman Pat McKinley. The mayor and mayor pro tem positions are one-year terms rotated among the five council members, officials said.

CNN's Irving Last, Stan Wilson and Marie Malzberg contributed to this report.