Sunday, September 25, 2011

Justice for Kelly Thomas!

On July 5, 2011 the police in Fullerton CA got a call that someone was breaking into cars near a transit hub.  Officers Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli arrived on the scene and saw a homeless, schizophrenic man named Kelly Thomas, who frequented the area.  Since this was the officers' regular beat, they were familiar with Thomas and surely knew that he showed signs of a serious mental illness.

The officers searched Thomas' backpack and found items that they decided weren't his.  They ordered the schizophrenic man to sit on the ground with his legs in front of him and his hands on his knees.  Officer Ramos snapped on a pair of latex gloves, held up his fists, and snarled,  "Now you see my fists?  These fists are getting ready to fuck you up."  Kelly Thomas, confused and frightened, attempted to move away.  Ramos took out his baton, and Thomas held up his hands in a defensive posture, with palms out to deflect the blows.

Ramos and Cicinelli beat Thomas with their batons, tasered him 5 times in the course of the beating and beat him 8 times in the face with the Taser gun.  Four other officers arrived and joined in.  Bystanders were not close enough to visually record the beating, but their camera captured the horrific sounds of the murder:  the zapping of the Taser and Thomas' agonizing screams and his repeated calls,  "Dad...Dad...Dad!"  The officers continued to beat him, even after he was still and making no further sounds.

Kelly Thomas was taken to the hospital.  When his father, a former sherriff's deputy, arrived at the hospital and came to his son's bedside, he could not even recognize his son.

Kelly Thomas died five days later.

His father and the community demanded an investigation into the indefensible murder.  Last week, the DA of Orange County announced that Officer Ramos had been charged with second degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.  Cpl. Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.

This story has been so disturbing to me.  Of course, many, if not most, citizens would be outraged by the deadly actions of a couple of rogue cops.  Very few parents could hear those heart-rending screams of "Dad" without feeling empathy for this grieving father.  And for those of us who are parents to sons or daughters who have schizophrenia, this is often our greatest fear...that someday our child will have a confrontation with police when he/she is actively psychotic...a confrontation that could end in tragedy.

I remember that many years ago, long before the onset of Gabriel's schizophrenia, there was a terrible incident in the middle class neighborhood where I worked.  A mother was having trouble with her adult schizophrenic son, and she called the police for assistance in getting him to the psychiatric ER at the county hospital.  When the police arrived, the son was in the front yard, wildly waving his arms.  They thought he was brandishing a weapon, and they shot him dead.  That incident stuck with me, and often comes to mind when Gabriel is having trouble.

During Gabriel's first psychotic episode, he had been furloughed from the county hospital, but by the next day, it was obvious that he was having difficulties.  He was outside, when the phone rang.  It was the local police department.  They told me that Gabriel had called 911 and told him he was smoking.  Of course they thought he was making a prank call and called to see what was going on.  This was the first and only time that the police in our little burg showed restraint and didn't show up at our house to bully or harass us.  Thank God they didn't.  Gabriel told me later, when he was lucid, that he saw helicopters chasing him and people trying to kill him, and he called the police and told them he was smoking in an attempt to get the police to come.  Of course, if they had come, the situation might have taken a turn for the worse, as paranoid as Gabriel was.

And then there was the five month period when Gabriel was very, very psychotic in 2008 (after the doctor monkeyed with his medications).  He laughed and paced 20 hours a day.  He stared at his aliens and the members of the Mafia who were threatening him.  He began to curse at the mafiosos, and punch and kick at them.  Most of the time he stayed in the house, but sometimes he went out in the front yard.  I was SO worried that neighbors would see him out there, laughing hysterically or punching at thin air, and that they would assume he was high on drugs and would call the police.  I was still working at the time, and it was so stressful to have to leave to see patients, not knowing what he would do.  I don't know for sure what would have happened if the police had come, but I think it could have turned out very badly, as paranoid as he was, and as confrontational as those police officers were.  When he is that psychotic, he is unable to answer the simplest of questions and unable to understand and follow the most basic directions.  I have no doubt that those officers, lacking adequate training, would interpret his response as defiance and resistance.

I hope Ramos and Cicinelli are found guilty of the most serious charges and that they are given the maximum sentence.  But beyond that, I hope that police departments in every city will strive to improve their training for all officers on how to best respond to people with serious mental illness.  And I hope that they will always try to improve their psychological screening process for their officers, so that they can weed out officers who have a tendency towards such violent and aggressive actions.