Local News

BLM Protests Lead to Virtual Town Halls with Police Chief

The Fullerton Police Department and members of the City Council are responding to calls for defunding and/or rethinking policing across the country with virtual town halls featuring members of the Council and FPD Chief Robert Dunn. The first, hosted by Councilmember Ahmad Zahra and the Fullerton Collaborative, took place in the mural room of the police department on June 23. The other, just two days later, was hosted by Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald remotely from City Hall, with Chief Dunn appearing from his office police headquarters next door. Hired as Chief in June, 2019, Dunn had served as Acting Chief since August, 2018 after having been brought on as a captain in January that same year. On June 25 he described the department’s personnel as being “champions of change, and accepting of change.”

Chief Dunn, who formerly served as a Public Information Officer for the Anaheim Police Department, fielded questions from members of the public and the Collaborative, presenting his department as one that is intolerant of racist and misogynist behavior, and whose officers follow clear procedures and are subject to disciplinary action if they don’t.

The FPD’s procedures, explained the Chief, are determined with input from a private firm called Lexipol (www.lexipol.com) who contract with the City (as well as other departments across the country) to provide updates on legislative actions, court decisions, and best practices. Most recently, the FPD banned the use of carotid choke holds on suspects following Governor Newson’s order for the State’s police training program to stop instructing officers on its use.

Officers receive two days of crisis intervention training, Use of Force and Racial Bias training every two years, as well as additional training in accordance with the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training. The Chief said that officers discuss diversity among themselves often. “We will root out any type of hatred for any reason,” he said. If a complaint is made, the California Attorney General’s office will review it, as will the Office of Independent Review (OIR), who contract with the City to annually review specific aspects of the department, as well as uses of force and problem officers. Dunn claims that OIR asks tough questions in its investigations, which can include internal affairs. Complaints made to the department about its officers are required to be finished within a year, but the State’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights (POBR) law makes transparency about investigations and disciplinary actions difficult.

Councilmember Ahmad Zahra, Police Chief Robert Dunn, and Leanna Forcucci of the Fullerton Collaborative at a June 23 virtual Town Hall.

During the June 25 virtual appearance, Dunn referred to a “robust” computer system that wasn’t being used before his tenure. A program on the system is capable of tracking officers’ use of force, application of techniques, success levels of techniques, and times they are used, none of which was being utilized. The system alerts command staff to potential problem officers based on the collected data.

Fullerton Police Officers shot and killed two suspects during the month of May, 2020. Both were armed with knives, one reportedly had a gun. City Council members are briefed after each such incident shortly after they occur, but FPD doesn’t release much information about officer involved shootings while the District Attorney is investigating them. However, state law requires that video and audio from such incidents be released within 45 days. Chief Dunn’s practice is to do so in the form of narrated Critical Incident Community Briefing videos incorporating the footage, and introduced by the Chief and Lt. Jon Radus. The May 3 shooting killed a man who reportedly tried to carjack a family member’s truck on Commonwealth Ave. In the video, the Spanish speaking man refuses to drop a large knife when repeatedly ordered to do so, and is shot by multiple officers with both bean bags and live ammunition while walking towards officers across the street from him. A briefing from the second shooting, on May 28 has not yet been released.

The department, according to Chief Dunn, is funded for 140 officers, but only currently employs 123, 111 of whom are deployable. Presumably for security reasons, he declined to specify how many were on patrol at any given time. Dunn described the department as a “full service” one, although jail personnel are outsourced. Of course, many employees of the department serve in non-sworn support positions.

Command staff includes two captains, but neither position is currently filled long-term. Instead, one captain is a returning retiree, while department rotates its lieutenants in and out of the second captain position. The Chief’s plan is to eventually hire two of these lieutenants as his captains. FPD has ten detectives.

Forty percent of Fullerton’s budget is spent on police, much of it on salaries and benefits. Chief Dunn said that the amount budgeted hasn’t changed since he became Chief. During a town hall, one person asked how the department racks up 30,000 hours of overtime.  FPD, Dunn  said, doesn’t attract many lateral hires—officers moving from another police department—because their pensions are now based on retirement at 55 rather than the 50-year mark they may already enjoy working for another department, and which longtime FPD officers have. Overtime hours are used by existing personnel to fill in for missing positions.

Mayor Fitzgerald said that the department’s new budget was developed using the same service levels and programing as last year, but that pension costs are expected to rise 12% this year, and health premiums will rise by 7%.

Dunn estimated that 60% of his time is spent dealing with homelessness issues. He thinks that the department has struck a good balance between responding to complaints and being sensitive to the needs of homeless people through its Homeless Liaison Officer (HLO) Unit, one of whose salary is paid for by a North OC Public Safety Task Force grant that will expire this year. HLO officers receive an additional 95 hours of training.

One prominent criticism of police nationwide is that they sometimes respond with inappropriate violence to persons with mental health issues. Dunn said that mental health organization partners have the necessary skillset to respond to calls, but they request FPD officers to accompany them for safety reasons. However, he did say that he is open to suggestions about what other professionals might be better responders to such calls.

Fullerton has had five interim or permanent police chiefs in the nine years since the beating death of the homeless schizophrenic Kelly Thomas at the hands of Fullerton police in July, 2011. The department’s procedures and actions have been under scrutiny ever since, but the similar senseless and brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer this year—as well as other killings of people of color—have focused renewed attention on the very nature of policing nationwide. Fundamental questions about how police function in society once reserved for the far ends of the political spectrum are suddenly mainstream, with calls for everything from redirecting some police duties to social programs to the outright dissolution of departments themselves. The unexpected and precipitous COVID-19 caused disruption of the economy that has left municipalities cutting services and scrambling for funding has also revealed in stark terms that public safety, and police in particular, often account for significantly large portions of city budgets.

Suddenly, police departments are finding themselves in the unaccustomed position of having to justify their budgets, and even their very existences. Locally, the FPD approached such a moment 8 years ago when a single vote by then-Council member Greg Sebourn defeated a motion to seek a bid for police services from the Orange County Sheriff Department. The other 2 votes against the measure were made by members of the Council who had been endorsed and supported by the Fullerton Police Officers Association, the local police union, whose members handed out hamburgers in the city hall parking lot before flooding the council chambers to hear and to speak out on the item. At the time, following the 2012 Council recall election, 3 of the 5 councilmembers were not backed by the union—a very unusual circumstance that only lasted five months. Before that time, and since, the police union—and firefighters union—have endorsed enough successful candidates every 2 years to give them a comfortable majority on the Council who are not likely to cut their budgets or institute any drastic reforms, reorganizations, or oversight of the police department.

Instead, Council members have expressed dismay and sorrow at the death of George Floyd, but have limited their examination of the department’s practices and utility to town halls designed to bring the Chief, already adept at communicating with the public, closer to Fullerton residents. Mayor Fitzgerald, in her introduction to a June 25 town hall, took partial credit for what she characterized as “major reform” of the FPD beginning with her election in 2012, but was part of a voting block that outright rejected a resident-backed plan for oversight of the department the following year in 2013. OIR was hired for periodic partial reviews instead.

On June 6, Ahmad Zahra and Councilmember Jesus Silva both appeared at a Black Lives Matter protest on the lawn of Fullerton’s City Hall, but only Zahra spoke to the hundreds gathered there demanding police reform. Reading from a prepared text at the protest, Zahra celebrated the Pride Flag flying above City Hall behind him and stridently proclaimed the need to respect diversity, drawing wild cheers from the protesters. However, he was met with momentary silence, and then skeptical vocal responses, when he tried to assure the assembly that the police department across the street was committed to “accountability, transparency, and the highest safety standards.” Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who spoke before him, held up a sign reading “Protest and accountability = Policy Shift,“ but never once said the word “police” in her comments.

During the town hall with Zahra on June 23, Chief Dunn characterized his department as “progressive” on the issue of transparency for being the only city he knew of to post on its website personnel records relevant to complaints and investigations of officers’ misconduct involving sexual assault, shootings, uses of force, and dishonest conduct, in accordance with SB1421, a 2018 State bill that requires municipalities to release such records upon request. The bill was signed into law in September, 2018, but did not take effect until January 1, 2019. Sharon Quirk-Silva, whose Assembly district includes Fullerton, and who served 2 full terms on the Fullerton City Council, voted against SB1421.

Thirty-eight records can be found at www.cityoffullerton.com/gov/open_government/sb_1421.asp, some for now former officers involved in the Kelly Thomas beating.

One file not found on the SB1421 site is a questionable separation agreement made between former FPD Lt. Katherine Hamel and the city of Fullerton. It appeared to be designed to avoid exposing records of internal affairs investigations into her conduct that would have been eligible for public request and publication under SB1421. The agreement was brought to light by the Friends for Fullerton’s Future Blog, whom the City is currently suing for publishing it and other documents the City claims were unlawfully obtained from the City’s website.

The FFFF blog revealed the Hamel document in June, 2019. Around that same time, Chief Dunn added oversight of the City’s IT division to his duties. According to City Manager Ken Domer, “Based on his knowledge of IT issues, and at the time the City was assessing the impact of a data breach, the Chief volunteered to oversee the IT Division” while the City prepares to add an IT Director in coming months. Chief Dunn temporally oversees all IT not related to the Granicus system utilized by the City Clerk.

Illegal fireworks are also a source of many complaints made to the FPD. Chief Dunn acknowledged that the department didn’t do much about it last year, but has dedicated resources to interdiction this year, conducting undercover operations that have led to the seizure of large amounts of the contraband incendiaries. Non-emergency complaints about illegal fireworks can be made to (714) 738-6716 .

2 replies »

  1. Hey Matt- doesn’t the police budget consume 49% of Fullerton’s general budget?

    Your article states 40%. I think it is good to remind the voters of Fullerton that between the police and the fire departments, they consume 71% of our entire budget every single year.