Kelly Thomas: Schizophrenic & Disposable

Kelly Thomas

Kelly Thomas

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.

kelly thomas beaten

Kelly Thomas Never Regained Consciousness

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.


Kelly Thomas: Schizophrenic & Disposable — 14 Comments

  1. the best response to come out of our government, “the most significant…since 1960” some call it, is H.R.3717 by Dr. Tim Murphy, R Pa. It needs more sponsors. It addresses intervention via mental health courts (“assisted outpatient treatment”), it addresses parity with other diseases for insurance, it addresses the longstanding problems of NOT actually spending designated money on the Seriously Mental Ill, who often are not wanted by treatment providers because they are too much trouble and can be left for police and coroners to care for. It allows for parents and loved ones to be part of planning, often not happening because of hippa rules, allows sharing of information with them, as well as other services providers, so that it integrates with other medical treatment (this is often not possible again from hippa. It permits insurance coverage by facilities using unpaid , volunteer professionals, again something not happening because now only paid staff get covered under the agency policy. Please look to Rep Murphy’s Page. and look here for detailed explanations of the particulars

    • Thanks for your post, Walt. Though I know many are against this bill because they feel it infringes on civil liberties, I think it will save many like Kelly Thomas. So many of the homeless are people with untreated severe mental illness, mostly schizophrenia.


    • Thank you for posting this. Thanks to everyone involved in this blog and in speaking up, in telling it like it is. My son is in jail right now for over four months on a misdemeanor charge that the state’s attorney said, “I’m not even sure that’s a jailible offense.” For several court dates it was postponed because he had no attorney, said he did not need one (he’s bi-polar 1, psychotic, but is not sick and does not need help…”) according to him. They know he’s ill because he’s on the med ward, but has never been evaluated. He has glaucoma and without his drops, he’s going blind, but he’s not getting them in jail, instead falling deeper and deeper into irreversible darkness. Before that he was homeless in the Chicago area. We spent a couple K traveling out there, to have him evaluated, involuntarily hospitalized, a doctor testified and recommended to a court that he get at least 90 days inpatient care and be forced to take meds, esp. since he did well on them before and they helped very much. But, Elgin State hospital was where he was transferred, and they let him out against court request one week later, would not help him get SSI because they said he was not sick enough, even though he had been there four times before, once suicidal. My heart is completely broken. I have another son who is schizophrenic, and two who are well and don’t have M.I. but they also have broken hearts. It’s a devastating situation that they are sick and it’s so hard to get them help.

      • This is heartbreaking, Mercedes. I hope you are finding the help and support you need. I am thinking of you.


        • Kathy, I know this is a long time later, but I never saw your reply. Thank you. They are both doing pretty well now! It’s been a long road. Take care.

  2. Knowing that this sort of thing does happen should compel us to learn to recognize the warning signs that mental illness is starting to take over the lives of our friends and loved ones. Let’s not let it get to the point where all that’s left is for the police to put a stop to it. Our law enforcement officers are very human. They have to deal with a lot of disrespect and a lot of verbal abuse. They reach a point where they just will not take it anymore. Sadly, we have a lot of law enforcement officers who are secretly struggling with mental illness but have found ways to conceal it. They also have the support of fellow officers, which is often not support at all but merely a willingness to help hide the truth so they can continue working in law enforcement. Mental illness strikes people from every economic class and every race. No one is exempt. We all need to learn the warning signs and be willing to let God intervene. He is our Great Physician and our Wonderful Counselor. Life apart from Him is dangerous and very risky.

    • Thanks for your comments, Lisa. Very much appreciated. I do think that everyone who knew Kelly, including his parents and the police, recognized that he suffered from schizophrenia. Unfortunately his family was powerless in getting him treatment and the officers involved were fed up and perhaps angry, and certainly brutal. These things happen to the mentally ill again and again as demonstrated by the recent shooting by police of the young man with schizophrenia, who was killed in his parents home.


    • The problem is that there is a “willful blindness,” on the part of others to take these issues seriously. It’s like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. They are walking the streets completely out of their minds crying out for help, unable to take care of or provide for themselves, suffering, tormented, frighted, sad, in despair, lost, feeling like failures, feeling less than, feeling unloved and unwanted, in danger, and possibly dangerous, and many seem to say this is just okay. That’s obscene. Someone with Alzheimer’s, (neuro disorder,) no matter how angry would not be allowed to live that way but would be hospitalized instead. It’s clear they are sick and need help.
      So many people I know, including detectives themselves I’ve heard say, “The system doesn’t work, they go from the street, to the hospital, to the street, to jail, etc.? The problem is that we, the parents and loved ones are screaming as loud as we can to be heard and the people that can make a difference, the ones in power are not listening, or if they are, not hearing not with empathy, not letting the impact of it effect them enough to make changes in the laws and system, etc.

      • Willful blindness is right, Mercedes. We need to tell our stories, raise awareness, reduce stigma, and find solutions!

  3. As a forensic psychologist, I worked in a jail for over 2 years. The type of person that we want as a policeman is rule oriented, willing to engage in physical altercations, and is not someone who has empathy for someone breaking the law. A policeman is also someone who sees the most negative side of the human race every day. Policemen are people that accumulate incidents of PTSD and are not inclined to seek therapy for it. Then we want this policeman to have empathy and expect them to show empathy precisely at the right moment and in the right situation. It’s a contradiction. Police can be killed or severely hurt by letting their guard down. In this case, it was obviously excessive force and I am sure some rules of engagement were broken. When a policeman exercises poor judgment or makes a mistake, someone may die or get severely injured … including the policeman. Mental health training needs to be done in a forensic context.

    • I respect what you said, and understand your logical thinking there, but with human beings, and illness, I don’t think the solution is as simple as what you’ve offered. We do need people in law enforcement who have empathy. We all need more empathy, and empathy can neutralize a situation like nothing else, esp. with high emotions involved. There are limits to empathy, and it’s certainly not all that is called for, but in my opinion, when dealing with people, this really helps, esp. in a conflict. I certainly appreciate law enforcement. They have been EXTREMELY helpful when I have called them for help with my son, picking him up to get evaluated, etc. There have been some awful, terrible and wonderful officers, as there are in any profession across the board. I don’t think anyone means to stereotype the police officers, and of course they get P.T.S.D. Guess what, so do people with M.I., their experiences are traumatizing, and so do the family members on the front lines of this disease with loved ones who are psychotic. All the more reason for police officers to be empathic. Being empathic does not mean you don’t follow the procedures of the law. I agree with you about the training; education is desperately needed. Thank you for posting.

      • You are so right. The issues are complicated as are the solutions. Last night in Colorado Springs we held our first Community Conversation on Mental Health. I wrote about it in my most recent blog. The goal is to identity solutions and develop a local mental health action plan by 2014.

        • I would like to send my most sincere sympathy for him and the family. since hippa family’s have no rights to there grown children with mental ill. I’m sorry to say that any person dealing with public need special training on mental Ill. I did the most stupidest thing i ever did was try sucide. I did sign my self in for help.I went to a facility(name less) cause i was totally mistreated while i was there. i only deal with depression and anxiety. Plus I have narcolepsy. This facility and many more of them are not train for this. Not given meds correctly and result fall a traumatic fall. I could here them a little but not able to respond. they where yelling at me to get so they check me out. since i was unable to get up, one male and one female nurse each took one arm and tossed me into bed. they never checked me out. I repeatly ask to see a dr or go to ER. and to have ice, it took them a long time to get that. Oh they never supported my neck when they got me up. THATS A BIG NO NO!!! they refused to take me to the Er they said the dr will check you when they get here. the dr never saw me until 24 hr after ward. I had a major hematoma on face with total facial swelling and neck injury, many other injuries. I did make it to the phone later to call my husband to let him know what happen. He was upset that they did nothing for me. The next day was visit day and him and my brother-in-law came. they could not believe it. finally at 3pm 24hrs after the fall i was evaluated by facility dr and taken to hosp. via taxi cab.I was in a lot of pain. several nurses and said i did this on purpose because i wanted attention.. all health personal should read a persons file. I always state i have narcolpesy.When finally at hosp. I was now a level two trauma. I’m seeking action… I would like to help people in facilities, because i had saw the abuse and how they where treated. It is horrible, answer for them just sedate them and there counseling is a joke. also most people with mental illness smoke and now facilities will not allow you too , all because of funding!!!! WHAT ABOUT MI PEOPLES RIGHT!!! Not being able to smoke just makes them worse.

  4. Fantastic site you have here but I was wondering
    if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of online community where
    I can get feed-back from other knowledgeable individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Many thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *