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Op-Ed

My Kelly Thomas moment

Police sometimes have to restrain people who are mentally ill. But they also must keep them safe.

March 11, 2012|By Carmelo Valone
  • After the police beating, Kelly Thomas' family released this 1998 photo of him.
After the police beating, Kelly Thomas' family released this 1998… (Thomas Family / AP Photo )

Later this month, preliminary hearings are scheduled to begin for two Fullerton police officers in the beating death of Kelly Thomas, an Orange County homeless man. We all need to pay attention.

It would be easy to conclude that Thomas was homeless by choice because he refused to take medication to treat a range of symptoms that had been diagnosed as schizophrenia. But things are more complex than that.

I myself have never been truly homeless, but I have refused mental healthcare on many occasions, often when I was at my most vulnerable. Other people considered me mentally unstable or ill, but I had a hard time seeing it that way. Sometimes it just felt like too much to process or to handle.

I am today a functional part of this dysfunctional world we call Los Angeles, and it has been quite a while since I needed any form of inpatient treatment. But there have been times — and this is not an easy thing to admit — when mental illness took over my life.

I had my Kelly Thomas moment on a hot summer night in Boston in 1995. I had moved out of my apartment to avoid getting kicked out for what my landlord called a mixture of monetary and behavioral issues. I had lost my ability at that point to relate to other human beings, and my roommates were probably eager to be rid of "the crazy one," who was on disability for mental and emotional reasons. I had lost hope.

After leaving that night, I took a walk to try to understand myself. And to my dismay I had no answers, only a blinding form of rage that left me feeling I would explode if I couldn't expel it from my body. I had recently stopped a regime of mind-numbing medications, not because I wanted to be ill but because, like many in the '90s, I had been seriously overmedicated and didn't know how to get things right.

I walked and walked that night trying to express my anger, but I couldn't utter a word. So what did I do? I punched. I started punching a local grade school building, smashing glass window after glass window. When neighborhood lights started going on, I ran away from the grade school and continued my assault on the small office building next door. It was a lawyer's office with an alarm, and the Boston police arrived in no time.

I began running, leaving a trail of blood from my tattered hands and wrists. A cop car nearly drove right into me in the Trader Joe's parking lot where I wound up. Soon, four more had rolled into the lot. I was crying as I ran into the circle the cars created, and disoriented from a lack of blood and overproduction of adrenaline. I sat down on the ground scared out of my mind.

"Will they kill me?" "Will they beat me to death?" "Will they lock me up forever?" There were no cameras or witnesses, and it was late at night.

When I tried to sit up, the pepper-spray was trained on me. I ducked most of it. The officers urged me to calm down, but they also warned me, using profanities, that if I didn't I was going to "get it."

Terrified and uncertain where I was, I tried to talk to them, requesting to see my therapist and a doctor as I sat up again. They started yelling at me not to move. Two officers complained that they had inadvertently gotten each other when I ducked to avoid their pepper spray, and before I knew it at least three more officers opened fire with their spray again. I fell over in pain.

In no time I was in the back of an ambulance, bloody and handcuffed. At the hospital, after they sewed up my open veins, they chained me to a bed. Soon, I was transferred to McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility I was all too familiar with. I had been pink-slipped — involuntarily committed. I was put back on my medication and kept for 30 days.

The Boston police officers who responded that night weren't exactly boy scouts when they restrained me, but I did live to see another day. Because of that, I've had the chance to improve, something Thomas didn't get.

Today, some 17 years later, I lead a healthy, positive life and am inching toward graduate school. My recovery wasn't simple, but talk therapy and creative writing were an essential part of it, along with the support of friends, some ill themselves and some not. I have been inspired and helped by my friend and mentor Elyn Saks, who won a MacArthur "genius" grant and is a professor at USC despite her own struggles with mental illness. I first urged her to write about Thomas, but she suggested I write my own story, and now I see why.

I don't want to hide from who I once was because that has never helped me. Who I am today would not be possible without who I was yesterday.

I have no perfect solutions to offer police when they meet people like I was or like Thomas was that night. But I do know what it's like being restrained when you are lost and not in your right state of mind. I know what it's like when things have gone terribly wrong and the world doesn't seem quite possible to understand.

The police have a right to restrain people for mental illness issues, and indeed there are times when they should. But they also need to understand the terror and vulnerability of the people they confront and do everything to keep them safe. Mental illness should never be a death sentence, as it was for Thomas. He was my age, 37, at the time of his death. I have often worried about my life going wrong again, about winding up like Thomas.

I don't understand why we have to go through this sort of thing again and again. There are a lot of people on the streets like Thomas. Police need better strategies for coping with them — with us. Many communities have on-call crisis intervention teams that the police can call in. Such teams need to be not just available everywhere but utilized.

Let's not allow Kelly Thomas' death to have been in vain.

Carmelo Valone is a screenwriter, author and memoirist who is finishing a degree in creative writing at Antioch University Los Angeles.

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