This week, a jury acquitted Fullerton, California, police officers of any wrong doing inthe beating death of Kelly Thomas, who was thirty-seven and suffering from schizophrenia. I watched the surveillance video of the beating, which was also shown in court. Kelly’s parents saw it too. It was horrible, tragic, heart-breaking and unnecessary. On moment Kelly is sitting on bench, perhaps talking to himself, maybe hearing voices, the next a police officer appears pulling on latex gloves and looking like he’s ready to enter the ring. The match is pretty one sided though. “Sorry, sorry, I can’t breathe, man. Sorry,” Kelly yells as he is repeatedly kicked, tasered, and beaten beyond recognition. He cries out “Dad, Dad. Help me Dad. I love you Dad.” After five days in a coma, Kelly Thomas died.
How could officers beat a man to death for no apparent reason and how could the jury conclude that it was okay? The defense attorney argued that Kelly was combative, but when I looked at that video, I only saw a man fighting for his life. Why didn’t the jury see what I saw? Are the mentally ill so undeserving and so easily disposable? Was Kelly Thomas to be blamed for his illness? Were his parents to blame for letting him roam the streets? Many seem to think so. Utter nonsense. Kelly Thomas was on the streets because we don’t have a system of care that ensures treatment to those who need it, including commitment to a hospital. Seemingly Kelly Thomas wasn’t “a danger to himself or others,” the criteria for commitment in most states. And as an adult he had the “right” to be unmedicated and homeless. I’ve seen it many times before— parents powerless to get the help they so desperately want for their son because of the laws and inaccessibility of treatment. So the police are left to deal with it and too often those with mental illness end up dead.
Unfortunately, instead of mental health professionals, it is the police who are on the front lines when it comes to those with mental illness. They deal with scores of mental health crises every day because of our failed system. They have become our defacto mental health care providers and they are ill-equipped to fill that role. Even so, many officers do what little they can to help them. They transport them to emergency rooms and crisis centers, only to see those same faces back on the streets a day or two later.
One attempt to educate those officers who must deal with psychiatric emergencies is Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), a program supported by NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness). Officers who complete the training say their attitudes toward those with mental illness are transformed. They are educated about what it’s like to live with severe illness and learn to empathize with those who suffer. They learn how to respond to crisis with understanding and compassion and to de-escalate situations. Many communities have instituted CIT after tragedies such as that of Kelly Thomas. Fullerton needs to do the same. And as a country, we need to change our perceptions about mental illness and treat it as an illness like any other.