You can’t discuss homelessness without having a concurrent discussion about how we as a society treat the mentally ill. And you can’t have a conversation about the homeless and mentally ill in Orange County without talking about Kelly Thomas. So this will be a two-part column. Part One is the “just the facts” about what happened to Kelly Thomas. Part Two will deal with lessons learned and unlearned.
On the evening of July 5, 2011, around 8:30 pm, the Fullerton Police Department (FPD) received a call from an employee of the Slidebar, located on Commonwealth Ave, that someone was allegedly vandalizing automobiles near the Fullerton Transportation Center (FTC), located at the intersection of Commonwealth and Pomona Avenues. FPD officers Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, and Joseph Wolfe went to investigate. They found Kelly Thomas, shirtless and disheveled, near the FTC. He was initially described as being uncooperative and resistant to being searched.
Kelly Thomas was no stranger to the FPD or the police departments of neighboring cities. Between 1990 and 2011, Thomas had 92 encounters with the police. These encounters ranged from minor infractions, such as trespassing, to a guilty plea in an assault with a deadly weapon case sixteen years prior. It was also well-known to members of those departments that Thomas was homeless and schizophrenic. And unfortunately, people with schizophrenia sometimes stop taking their medications. So his lack of cooperation with peace officers could have been anticipated.
Instead of considering Thomas’ obviously distressed mental state, the officers–particularly Officer Manuel Ramos–chose to become aggressive. “Now you see my fists?” Officer Ramos asked Thomas while slipping on a pair of latex gloves. “Yeah, what about them?” Thomas responded. “They are getting ready to f–k you up,” said Ramos, to which Thomas replied, “Start punching, dude.”
Pause. Does Thomas’ response sound like the response of a rational, lucid human being? Or that of a mentally troubled man responding to a threat of aggression with a lack of concern for his safety? Anyone who has studied mental illness and the responses of mentally ill persons to authorities, such as law enforcement in crisis situations, is familiar with the oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Persons diagnosed with ODD, as its name indicates, often respond with defiance to orders from authority figures, such as the police, known as “contempt of cop.” This is not a crime, but it often elicits antagonism from peace officers.
At this point, where the infamous video recording begins, Thomas is sitting on a curb, not cooperating but not physically resisting officers. However, this changes very quickly when the officers grab Thomas and yank him to his feet, supposedly to interrogate him about some stolen mail that they allegedly found on him. Thomas can be heard screaming in pain while the officers order him to comply, yelling, “I’m sorry!” and “OK, I’m trying!” as they stretch his arms behind his back.
Pause. The initial display of defiance has clearly given way to fear, confusion, and a plea for mercy. Not hardened criminal behavior but the response of a frightened, mentally ill person.
Resume. Unconvinced by Thomas’ contrition and attempts to comply, the officers tasered him no less than FIVE TIMES. At this point, Thomas begins screaming for his father. The officers’ response – now six in total – is to continue physically subduing Thomas.
Officer Ramos can be heard on the video saying, “I just smashed his face to Hell.” He had been hitting Thomas in the face with the blunt end of his flashlight.
Thomas was initially taken to St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton but was transferred immediately to the UC Irvine Medical Center with severe injuries to his head, face, and neck. One EMT testified that he was first instructed to attend to a police officer’s minor injury and then noticed Thomas lying unconscious in a pool of blood. Ramos had beaten Thomas’ face so severely that he was unrecognizable. Indeed, if the picture of Thomas in the ER were to accompany this article, it would carry a warning that this is a graphic photo that would upset readers.
Kelly Thomas died at UCI five days later, on July 10, 2011, without regaining consciousness. The autopsy revealed that, due to the beatings, Thomas had suffered compression of the thorax, which made it impossible for him to breathe normally and deprived his brain of oxygen, resulting in brain death.
His father, Ron Thomas, a former Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy, took the Fullerton PD to court. The city of Fullerton was required to pay millions to Thomas’ parents in compensation. In a still-controversial verdict, Ramos was found not guilty of 2nd-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cicinelli was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. All charges were dropped against Wolfe. No charges were ever filed against the other three officers.
The name Kelly Thomas, like George Floyd, has become synonymous with the need for systemic reform of police departments nationwide. Thomas, Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, and too many others are still speaking to us from the grave.
Video: http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v= A6IntxCA3sA
A final note: Kelly Thomas would have turned 49 years old this week.