For many years, the mental health community and homeless advocates have justifiably criticized local law enforcement agencies for failing to properly train peace officers in responding to situations or crises involving the mentally ill. Crisis intervention teams with specially trained officers are a proven way to defuse problems without unnecessary force whenever mentally ill suspects may appear to threaten public safety. In too many cases, preventable tragedy ensues if untrained officers respond with excessive force or needless shootings.
Persons with mental illnesses who do not take medications controlling their conditions or who otherwise may become homeless are particularly susceptible to police brutality. Many wander aimlessly or fail to respond to commands and are targeted by rogue officers who believe it’s their duty to remove them from their communities.
There is even a phenomenon known as “suicide by cop,” where distraught individuals approach officers seemingly pleading to be killed. Others may throw or brandish non-life threatening objects when officers arrive at the scene.
We know that peace officers have difficult, stressful jobs. Yet, we also know that police brutality does occur and that law enforcement and local elected officials close ranks when these incidents occur.
The nation is closely watching a shocking police brutality case in Fullerton, California. Yesterday, following an intense investigation, Orange County’s District Attorney filed second degree murder and manslaughter charges against two police officers who beat and killed Kelly Thomas, a 37-year old schizophrenic homeless man. Its heinousness is reminiscent of the infamous Rodney King beating.
On July 5th, police routinely investigating reported automobile break-ins approached Thomas at a bus stop. The victim who refused medications ran away. He was chased and thrown face down in a defenseless position surrounded by six officers.
Witnesses were horrified watching Thomas hit repeatedly in the face and head and attacked with a stun gun six times. He begged for life, crying “Dad, Dad!” Thereafter, one of the suspects used the butt end of the stun gun to hit him numerous times even after he was subdued and seriously injured.
Kelly Thomas died five days later.
Cell phone and squad car cameras recorded the entire incident. Thomas’ father, a retired deputy sheriff, said the attack was nothing short of cold-blooded murder. His photo of Thomas’s grotesquely damaged face and other videos have circulated world-wide on You Tube and social media.
Local residents made it clear that they were holding Fullerton’s Police Chief, City Council, and District Attorney fully accountable for investigating the case and pressing charges. Protests and vigils were held and city council meetings were flooded above seating capacity. The filing of the criminal complaints was universally applauded.
The disability community should closely monitor this tragic case. It underscores the need for training officers to interact appropriately with people with all types of disabilities.
We’ll never know what made Kelly Thomas flee, but peace officers must be instructed whenever interacting with our community that disabilities or medications can create unanticipated communication barriers. It’s critical for them to actively consider that such reactions do not necessarily equate to guilt or culpability and to respond accordingly.