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Fullerton death focuses attention on mental health

Federal, county and city authorities investigate the beating as Orange County supervisors look into implementing state's Laura's Law.

August 10, 2011|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • A photo of Kelly Thomas, with a message seeking information about his case, is taped to a pole at the bus depot near where died after a violent altercation with Fullerton police officers on July 5.
A photo of Kelly Thomas, with a message seeking information about his case,… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

In the wake of the death of a schizophrenic man in Fullerton after a violent altercation with police, Orange County supervisors took an initial step Tuesday toward implementing a state law that would allow people with severe mental illness to be placed in court-mandated outpatient treatment.

Laura's Law was passed by the state Legislature in 2002 after 19-year-old Laura Wilcox was killed by a man with untreated mental illness while volunteering at a mental health clinic in Nevada City. But it was left to counties to approve and fund the measure, and to date, only Nevada County has fully implemented it; Los Angeles County has implemented a limited pilot program. The law ran into opposition from civil liberties proponents, who argue that it takes away patients' freedom; counties also encountered funding issues.

The board directed county healthcare agency staff to return within 30 days with a report on how Laura's Law might be funded and implemented.

The issue of treatment for the severely mentally ill has been brought to the forefront in Orange County by the death of Kelly Thomas, a homeless man with schizophrenia who died after a violent altercation with Fullerton police officers last month.

Six officers have been placed on leave, and both the district attorney's office and the FBI are investigating. The city has also brought on board Michael Gennaco, head of the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review and a former federal civil rights prosecutor, to do a "broad-based review" of the Police Department.

Some advocates say the case could have been avoided if there had been a better mechanism to get Thomas into treatment. Advocates, many of whom have relatives with severe mental illness, pleaded with supervisors to implement Laura's Law. The program would allow family members to request that people meeting certain criteria be placed in a court-ordered treatment program, an option currently open only to people facing criminal charges.

Thomas had been in and out of treatment and in and out of county conservatorship for years. Last year, his mother filed for a restraining order against him, in what his father has said was an attempt to have him taken back into custody and placed in treatment.

The Thomas case has also led to calls for increased training in the police department. According to the city, 13 officers have gone through a county-run crisis intervention training program implemented in 2008 under the Mental Health Services Act.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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