There are so many things wrong, on so many levels, with the events that led to the death of Kelly Thomas. The homeless man in Fullerton, CA was beaten by at least three police officers for over nine minutes. Among these many wrongs certain actions rise to the top.
Here’s a chilling statement. A paramedic testified at the trial of Officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli that when she first arrived on the scene one of the officers directed her to treat Ramos’ injury. “Then she noticed Thomas lying unconscious in a pool of blood.” She further testified that none of the officers present directed the paramedics to Kelly.
Ramos had an abrasion on his elbow. Yet he wanted treatment before Thomas, who had multiple fractures to his orbital bones, his nose and other parts of his skull. Thomas had a crushed thorax and blood running into his lungs. Based on the paramedic’s testimony we can surmise the officers felt Kelly’s treatment could wait.
If you have followed the case you already know that three police officers were charged with second degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force. You know the horrifying damage done to Thomas, a homeless man with severe schizophrenia. You know that the jury issued a not guilty verdict on all three charges. A third officer named Joe Wolfe was also charged with involuntary manslaughter but the prosecution dropped the case after the not guilty verdict for Ramos and Cicinelli.
If you have not followed the case you can find a wealth of information online with videos, transcripts, pictures and excerpts from the trial.
There is one thing the case proves. Even with surveillance videos and the officers’ own digital audio recordings people are still unable to agree on whether the beating was justified.
As an advocate for the homeless and people with mental illness I am appalled. Why couldn’t the policemen handle Thomas less violently? The three officers involved in the assault itself were much taller, much heavier and well armed. The police department’s official comments and the defense claimed they were trained to handle encounters using the least amount of force necessary.
Still, I did not want to write this post without trying to understand the defense’s point of view. Police routinely face situations with unknown risk to themselves. They knowingly go into a dangerous situation in the investigation and apprehension of violent offenders. One of the officers is heard on the audio recording that he (Thomas) must have been “on something” by the way he fought. Ramos, Wolfe and Cicinelli reported fearing for their lives, that Thomas was fighting back and they were struggling to protect themselves. The defense rested on the premise the situation required the level of force the officers used.
I do not buy it. Here’s why.
- The police were so impervious to Thomas’ injuries and suffering they requested treatment for scratches without even mentioning Thomas to the paramedics.
- The defense claimed Ramos had numerous encounters with Thomas and knew him to be a regular drug user with a violent history. Orange County court records show Thomas was arrested in 1995 for assault with deadly force, when he hit his grandfather with a fire poker. In the 16 years between 1995 and 2011 court records show that Thomas was only arrested in Orange County for such crimes as jaywalking (twice), tampering with garbage, unlawful camping and trespassing. One arrest was for intimidation, but that was dismissed.
- When Ramos first approached Thomas he said Thomas had been seen pulling on car handles. They got into a discussion in which Ramos wanted to know if the homeless man was Kelly Thomas. Ramos told Thomas that once he (Ramos) verified Thomas’ identity he could let him go. It’s not even clear why this conversation was needed, since the defense later claimed Ramos was very familiar with Thomas.
- Upon request Thomas allowed Officer Wolfe to search his backpack. The officers did not frisk him. They gave no indication they thought Thomas could be armed.
- While Thomas was sitting on the ground he held both hands up to Ramos, saying if the policeman was going to arrest him, he should get it over with. Ramos replied “he wasn’t ready.” What was Ramos waiting for? If he had cause to arrest Thomas why didn’t he go ahead and handcuff him?
- The video showed Ramos snapping on plastic gloves while Thomas sat on the ground as Ramos had directed him. Ramos made two fists and then held them in front of Thomas’ face. The audio recording clearly picked up Ramos’ words as he told Thomas, “Now see these fists? They’re going to fuck you up.” Thomas did not jump up, even at these words. Ramos pulled him up by the arm. At that point Thomas attempted to run, (presumably because he did not want to get fucked up by Ramos’ fists). Wolfe hit him in the legs with his baton. Ramos hit him next and both men tackled Thomas to the ground.
- The reports later filed by all six officers seem suspect. They were allowed to watch the surveillance video before they had to write the reports. This gave them the opportunity for all the stories to match, even though the six officers arrived at various points of time.
- No officers who arrived on the scene attempted to stop Ramos, Wolfe and Cicinelli even as Thomas was growing weaker. One commented that Thomas was”bleeding pretty good.”
- Even the police chief issued a statement saying, “this one event does not and should not define the Fullerton Police Department.” Why not, if their actions were in line with their duties and training? Wouldn’t the chief want appropriate actions to define the department?
The beating and eventual verdict have drawn international attention. It has led to new calls for police training on how to handle people with mental illness. Over the years shootings like those that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School or Virginia Tech also led to calls to invest more into treatment for people with mental illness.
If only these calls for more training and treatment had the power of a not guilty verdict for beating a homeless man to death. That verdict signifies we are still too willing to expect homeless people with mental illness will be violent and dangerous. The verdict suggests any amount of police force against them is acceptable. Our society’s ambiguity about helping mentally ill people lives on even as people like Kelly Thomas are killed by police “in the line of duty”.
*Watch here for the full video of the encounter between Kelly Thomas and Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, Joe Wolfe and other police. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fs4iZtvYZg.