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Does Progress in the Kelly Thomas Case Mean A Standstill for the Mitrice Richardson Case and Others?

In a highly anticipated meeting on February 21, members of Fullerton’s City Council and a roomful of citizens listened to the results of a months-long investigation into the case of Kelly Thomas, the homeless man who in July of 2011 was beaten by Fullerton police officers, allegedly without cause, only to die of his wounds five days later. Specifically, the meeting was meant to address whether, in the wake of the beating, Fullerton police deliberately represented the victim as a hostile homeless man by distributing an unflattering mug shot of him and disseminating false information about the incident in an attempt at ad hoc image control. According to the LA Times, Michael Gennaco, the former federal prosecutor who made the announcement, told council members, “The Fullerton Police Department did not intend to deceive or falsify information.” The Times noted correctly that Mr. Gennaco’s “findings offered one of the few bright spots for police in the case.”

Whether the rest of Mr. Gennaco’s inquiry sheds equally positive light on Fullerton PD remains to be seen; he’s still working on the report, the results of which, according to the Associated Press, could be announced as soon as April. While many may disagree with Mr. Gennaco’s police-exonerating conclusions, one thing is certain: Given the magnitude of the case, he completed his work in short order.

Unfortunately for the residents of Los Angeles County, that’s not necessarily good news. The very fact that Mr. Gennaco works for anyone outside of L.A. County is worthy of public discussion.

Some background: Mr. Gennaco is a private attorney. His primary job is to run L.A. County’s Office of Independent Review, a group of six or seven private contractor attorneys that looks into allegations of misconduct by L.A. County Sheriff’s Department officers. To be clear, the OIR isn’t some Century City law firm that represents Sheriff Baca’s department. Its mission is to act as the department’s watchdog—making sure that the sheriff’s own internal investigations and inquiries are done by the book. Formed in the early 2000s at the behest of Baca himself, the OIR costs L.A. County taxpayers over a million dollars per year. According to its September 28, 2010 (renewed) contract with the County Board of Supervisors, Gennaco earns more than $237,000 per year, while his deputies earn from $178,000 to $207,000—not exactly a bounty by industry standards, but a healthy salary, especially given the county’s economic woes. Even though the OIR is not technically an L.A. County agency, L.A. taxpayers also shoulder the cost of the OIR’s county-issued cars, computers, offices, and expense accounts. Given the arrangement, Angelenos might feel that Gennaco and his colleagues owe them his undivided attention. As we’ve seen with the Thomas-Fullerton PD case, this isn’t always how things work.

The Thomas case isn’t an anomalous moonlighting gig for the OIR. Since its inception, the OIR has done side jobs for Oakland and Orange County, among many other municipalities, under the auspices of an agency created for and funded by Angelenos. Translation: When taxpayer-funded OIR lawyers go to work, they don’t always go to work for the taxpayers. This might sound like a minor quibble to those not directly affected by the OIR’s work. But for people like Latice Sutton and Michael Richardson, the OIR’s divided attention is a source of endless frustration.

Sutton and Richardson are the parents of Mitrice Richardson, the 24-year-old woman who was arrested by L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies in Malibu back in September 2009 on misdemeanor charges, then released from a remote substation in the middle of the night with no phone, no money, no car, no wallet, and no ride despite law-enforcement and civilian accounts suggesting she was mentally unfit for release. Mitrice went missing. A year later, her remains were found on an abandoned pot farm deep in the Santa Monica Mountains, about eight miles from the sheriff’s station.

As some readers of this magazine know, I wrote about Mitrice’s story last year. In the article, I discussed the OIR’s report on the arrest and release of Mitrice. While the report is nearly 60 pages long, it fails to address several important facts, and ultimately exonerates the deputies involved with Mitrice’s arrest, detention, and release. However, no one from the OIR interviewed sheriff’s personnel or civilians who came into contact with her the night of her arrest. I won’t go into the details of the report’s shortcomings here (it’s all in the article), but, in light of the Kelly Thomas case, now would be the time to consider why the Richardson report was so poorly executed.

Here’s one possible reason: While the OIR was working on the Richardson report (fall 2009 through summer 2010), Gennaco, his second-in-command, and a third OIR attorney (virtually half of the OIR) were conducting a $60,000 freelance job for the city of Portland, Oregon. (The results of that job can be found here.) As Gennaco told me last spring, he had little to do with the Richardson report that was underway at the time, other than signing off on it. 

When Mitrice Richardson’s remains were found in August 2010 by rangers checking on an eradicated pot farm, it was up to the local sheriff’s officers—from the same station involved with her arrest and release—to guard the scene until the coroner arrived. However, according to the coroner’s report, sheriff’s officers airlifted the remains out of the canyon against the coroner’s wishes (and therefore against the law) after having exclusive access to the body for nearly seven hours. Sheriff’s officers didn’t collect any evidence to help determine the cause, time, or location of death, nor have they explained what they did in that canyon all afternoon while the coroner’s team waited in vain for a helicopter.

Mitrice’s family learned of the alleged compromising of the scene a few months later, at which point the OIR agreed to undertake a second Richardson report to determine whether sheriff’s deputies mishandled the remains. In January of 2011, Gennaco told me by phone that the report was six weeks from completion. In March 2011 he told me it was indefinitely delayed. Today, almost a year and a half after the OIR embarked on the second report, Mr. Gennaco says it’s still incomplete. (In the meantime, Mitrice’s body was exhumed and reexamined; the cause of her death is still unknown.) 

While Mitrice’s family waits for the second report, Mr. Gennaco and the OIR have, as we know, completed a portion of the Kelly Thomas case, a freelance project that has nothing to do with L.A. County. I don’t wish to devalue the urgency of the Thomas case; it’s important, and needs to be addressed. But is this what Sheriff Baca and the Board of Supervisors had in mind when setting up the OIR a decade ago? Is it fair to Angelenos that their own sheriff’s oversight group has its irons in other cities’ fires?

After my Los Angeles magazine article came out in September 2011, the L.A. Daily Journal ran a story about the OIR’s many freelance jobs. In it, Gennaco defends his office’s side work: “It's enhanced what we do because I learn so much when we go out to other jurisdictions,” he told the paper. “By our forays into other jurisdictions, we learn better ways of doing things that we can bring back to this department.” Around the same time as the Daily Journal article, news broke of alleged misconduct by sheriff’s deputies in L.A. County jails. While the OIR had been, and remains, involved as a watchdog in the prisoner-abuse scandal, county officials determined that yet another oversight board needed to be created and convened. It’s hard to know how effective the new group will be, but its formation (like the work that the OIR does for Fullerton, Portland, and other cities) makes one thing very clear: Mr. Gennaco’s freelance work might make him and his colleagues better at their jobs, but it certainly doesn’t make them more available. Just ask Mitrice’s mother and father.

UPDATE: On 3/14/12, the Office of Independent Review released their report about the removal of Mitrice Richardson's remains, which essentially attributes the events of August 9, 2010 to poor communication but doesn't determine exactly what happened or who was at fault. To view the full report, click here. To see Sheriff Baca speaking at the conference, click here