Last month’s police killing of an unarmed schizophrenic homeless man in Fullerton has sparked debate about how police deal with mentally ill suspects. Kelly Thomas died after half a dozen police officers tried to subdue him at a bus depot.
Videotape shot by a witness doesn’t show a lot, but it does capture the distinctive clicking sound of the Taser gun that Fullerton police used on Thomas. You can hear the 37-year-old screaming.
Witnesses at the scene say he was screaming for his dad, before he lost consciousness. He died five days later.
His father Ron Thomas says he’s still haunted by the tape. “Obviously that just tore right through me. I hear it every day. I hear it every night. I don’t sleep. That sound will be with me forever.”
Thomas says his son, the oldest of three children, began to show signs of schizophrenia in his late teens. In adulthood, he struggled with homelessness and sometimes with the law – mostly when he wasn’t taking his medicine. He pleaded guilty once to assault with a deadly weapon.
“He’d be on his medications and he’d be just as normal and like anybody else," says Thomas. "And it would be ‘dad, I’m feeling fine. I don’t need to be on this medication.’ They don’t understand that the reason that they feel fine is because of the medication. So it’s a vicious, vicious cycle."
Thomas says his son probably didn’t understand what was happening when police officers stopped him for questioning about reports of car burglaries in the area. Things escalated when Kelly ran.
The officers might have been confused too, says UCLA Law Professor Gary Blasi. Many cops, he says, don’t know how to identify and handle mentally ill suspects.
“They expect them to be compliant," says Blasi, "to lie down on the ground when they’re told to lay down on the ground, but the person to whom they are speaking may see something completely different.”
Blasi, who’s looked at how police interact with the homeless and mentally ill, says some departments provide extensive training; others don’t. For example, the LAPD has specialized teams of officers and mental health workers.
“So when a regular officer encounters a situation, they can put out a radio call and get a smart team onsite," says Blasi. "And they basically take over the situation and try to handle it in the most humane and appropriate way possible.”
Fullerton Police Sgt. Andrew Goodrich says his department doesn’t have specialized units, but the officers are trained. “Our officers receive constant in-service training about a variety of things, including the mentally ill and homelessness.
Goodrich could not provide further details on the type of training officers receive.
The Fullerton case has attracted national attention, in part because of a gruesome hospital photo showing the bloodied and swollen face of Thomas after his encounter with officers.
Media reports of Thomas’s death drew hundreds of people to this week’s Fullerton City Council meeting.
“Hello, my name is Samantha Ross. I just want to say that my dad is bipolar."
Ross was one of several speakers who have mentally ill family members. She described how police in another city once stopped her father for breaking into cars.
“I know in his right mind, when he is on his medication, he would not do that," said Ross. "He’s not that person. And he was just taken home. They did not beat him.”
Several other speakers expressed outrage and anger over witness reports that police continued to stun and hit Thomas even after he stopped struggling.
“Sick, sick, crazy men," said Ross. "I don’t even want to call them men. They’re monsters.”
Prosecutors are warning against a rush to judgment. Orange County District Attorney Spokeswoman Susan Kang Shroeder says investigators are studying another videotape that hasn’t been released. It was recorded by a police camera mounted on a nearby building.
“There are things that you can see, and there are things that you can’t," says Shroeder. "Your heart is sad watching what happens in the case. But we have to be objective and decide the case based on the facts.”
As investigators do their work, Kelly’s father, who is a retired sheriff’s deputy, is pressing for changes in the wake of his son’s death. “I need a Kelly’s Law that will protect homeless. It will protect the mentally ill from being beat to death by police. Be more compassionate. That’s what I need people to understand – be more compassionate.”
The FBI has also opened an investigation into the death of Kelly Thomas that focuses on whether Fullerton police violated his civil rights.