Kelly Thomas video a turning point for mental health care?
“I sleep in trash cans.”
It is a minute and 45 seconds into the security camera video. Kelly Thomas, 37, jaws with police officers at a Fullerton bus depot, his arms crossed over his bare chest, his backpack double-strapped. It is the night of July 5, 2011, about 8:30. It’s still 80 degrees outside. A few pedestrians wander by. A car passes. There is no indication that the lives of every person on the tape are about to change.
“You planning on going to sleep pretty soon?” one officer asks.
“I’d like to,” Thomas replies.
But another officer, Manuel Ramos, isn’t done. “It seems like every day we have to talk to you about something,” Ramos says, twirling his baton. “Do you enjoy it?”
It is a critical moment — 2:12 on the video. From that point forward, the exchange spirals out of control. At 15:47, Thomas receives the first blow from a baton. At 17:29, officers pile on top of Thomas, who screams: “I can’t breathe!” At 21:25, blood gurgles in Thomas’ throat. At 21:49, he shrieks: “Daddy! Daddy!” At 22:36 come his last words: “Help me! Help me!”
This week, after the tape was played for the first time in court, it exploded in the public consciousness — one YouTube version had been viewed 91 times each minute — and became an instant touchstone for those who advocate for a more robust and effective mental health system.
Advocates for the mentally ill said they viewed the recording, the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case against two officers accused in Thomas’ death, as something akin to their Rodney King video.
In the case of the King video, civic activists felt they had a record, at long last, of something they’d been trying to articulate for years: that the relationship between African Americans and Los Angeles police was fundamentally broken. Similarly, advocates for the mentally ill say they now have a record of a scattershot, chronically underfunded mental health system. This is what it looks like, they said, when schizophrenics fend for themselves on the streets, when their only interface with the government is with haplessly unprepared police officers.
“I think I’m a fairly strong woman. I’ve seen a lot of tragedy over the years. But I am reeling,” said Carla Jacobs, a veteran Southern California mental health activist, shortly after watching the recording.
The tape, she noted, will be picked apart during the legal proceedings. Some will argue, she said, that Thomas should have been more respectful, and worked harder to follow instructions. Others will argue that the officers should have received better training. None of that, she contended, will matter in the end.
“As far as I’m concerned, the blame — the guilt — is on the mental health system that left Kelly out on the street and didn’t provide him with the treatment that could have prevented this horror,” she said. “I hope we can develop a collective memory and recognize the tragedy that we have caused.”
In interviews, advocates said the beating death and its recording could fuel meaningful reform — in mental health funding; in the use of coordinated, “wrap-around” social services; in persuading wary or defiant patients to consent to treatment; and, in particular, in the training of police officers to defuse encounters with the mentally ill.
“It is my personal crusade to change the way police officers deal with the mentally ill,” said Thomas’ father, Ron Thomas.
Kelly Thomas suffered brain injuries, shattered facial bones, broken ribs and a crushed thorax. He was taken off life support by his family and died five days after his beating.
Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter; a second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 40, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force. Ramos faces a life prison term; Cicinelli could be sentenced to four years in prison. Both have pleaded not guilty.
The black-and-white recording, lifted from a city surveillance camera, was played in public for the first time Monday at a preliminary hearing to determine whether the case should go to trial.
The recording was not equipped with sound, but authorities paired it with audio recordings lifted from devices attached to some of the officers’ uniforms. On the recording, Ramos is seen pulling on latex gloves — and can be heard telling Thomas that he is “getting ready to f— you up.” Cicinelli can be seen striking Thomas — and heard telling a colleague: “I just smashed his face to hell.”
“The audio is what is key,” Ron Thomas said. “Without the audio the brutality isn’t as devastating.”
Onlookers in the courtroom were unable to stifle cries of outrage; Judge Walter Schwarm was forced to pause the proceedings in order to remind the courtroom to maintain a sense of decorum.
In the past, other incidents in which homeless people were killed by police have prompted calls for reform. In 1999, for instance, a Los Angeles police officer shot and killed a 5-foot-1, 102-pound homeless woman after she allegedly lunged at him with a screwdriver. Today, LAPD officers are required to alert a mental evaluation unit when they encounter someone suspected of suffering from a mental illness; officers are trained to recognize people with schizophrenia and other conditions and are often paired with mental health experts.
But armed with a disturbing, crystalline recording of Thomas’ beating, mental health advocates are pushing for systemic reform — even in an age of shrinking budgets.
“It should be evident to anybody that this man need not have died,” said Randall Hagar, director of government affairs at the California Psychiatric Assn.
For instance, mental health workers have demonstrated the resounding success of a style of therapy known as “whatever it takes” — founded on the notion that mental illness is typically accompanied by physical illness, poverty and other problems. Those programs have languished because of funding deficiencies. Some advocates said the Thomas case could resurrect the effort to force institutions shouldering the burden of that frayed safety net, such as hospitals, to pay for the fix.
For the public, said Rusty Selix, executive director of the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies, “Not giving them the care they need costs more than giving them all of the care they need.”
The Thomas case, too, could prompt some counties to reconsider implementation of Laura’s Law, a 2002 measure allowing for court-ordered treatment and compulsory medication in some cases. So far, only Nevada County has fully implemented the measure. Now, Orange County is taking a hard look at implementing the law, though that effort is on hold while questions about its funding mechanisms are resolved.
“If Kelly Thomas wouldn’t have happened, I don’t know if we would have looked at it,” said Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach.
Most of all, advocates said they expect a fervent effort to train more officers to better navigate encounters with people who suffer from mental illness. Hagar said the Thomas case could compel advocates to add that training to upcoming legislative priorities in reforming California’s mental health system. And Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said the state could launch an effort to persuade counties to seek through the Mental Health Services Act additional law enforcement training.
Fullerton has put all of its officers through training on use of force and interacting with the homeless and mentally ill. The city also created a task force on homelessness and mental illness, made up of religious leaders, mental health advocates and others.
Like the King beating in Los Angeles, the death of Thomas forced leaders and residents to focus on a serious, long-standing problem, said Fullerton resident Rusty Kennedy, chairman of the task force and executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
“I think both in the Rodney King and the Kelly Thomas cases, there were significant steps taken,” Kennedy said. “But in both cases, the problems we’re facing aren’t easily put to rest.”
Staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.