With the nationwide calling for the defunding of police departments, Fullerton Mayor Jennifer Fitzgerald and police Chief Robert Dunn focused on the growth of the Fullerton Police Department in the past decade and how it can improve in the future in a virtual town hall on Thursday.

Fitzgerald joined the Fullerton City Council in November 2012, over a year after the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man who was fatally beaten by Fullerton police officers. As Thomas’ death sparked outrage on excessive force used by police officers, Fitzgerald said that it reached the point where the city had to examine and reform the police department.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes tragedy to make you reexamine things that you’ve just taken for granted,” Fitzgerald said. “We set about reforming our police department to make sure that what happened to Mr. Thomas never happened again.”

Dunn, who came to Fullerton in January 2018 and has been chief for over a year, said that one of the biggest priorities is investigating any force used by a police officer.

“There is no more important aspect of our job that we need to look at, scrutinize, examine than the use of force; anywhere from verbal to physical to lethal force,” Dunn said.

He added that to better the department, they began to track anytime an officer uses any type of force and how they applied it. Dunn said that by doing this, they can conduct deeper investigations if they notice an officer uses force more than others.

While Dunn was with the Anaheim Police Department in 2015, he said there was a race between the city and Fullerton to get officers to wear body cameras, with Fullerton ultimately getting them first. 

Dunn said that while the cameras provide the department with a chance to determine any good or bad behaviors officers may be exhibiting, if someone files a complaint, they can watch the body camera footage for a neutral perspective of the incident.

Police brutality has been at the forefront of protests throughout the U.S. since the death of George Floyd on May 25. The Defund the Police movement calls for cities to redistribute funds away from police departments and towards schools and hospitals.

For the 2020-21 proposed budget, the Fullerton Police Department is set to receive 47% of the city’s total funding, totaling $50.4 million, over $1 million more than this year.

Fitzgerald said that a reason for this is because of the retirement benefits that go to all public employees, including police officers, and that the city is contractually obligated to it.

However, she added that the city will review cost reductions throughout the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they will keep six different police officer positions vacant.

Dunn said that after Thomas’ death, officers needed to be specifically trained on how to properly handle someone facing homelessness. Citing budget constraints, Dunn said that they could not have around-the-clock homeless liaison officers, but have two full-time officers compared to having just one before.

In addition, all officers attend two days of crisis intervention training, which focuses on the homeless population as well as mental health and addiction issues. Dunn added that officers also receive training on implicit bias.

“We train our officers and hold them accountable to the fact that someone’s race, creed, religion, orientation, whatever it is, is not a basis for how we do business and will not tolerate it here in Fullerton,” Dunn said.

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