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Kelly Thomas video a turning point for mental health care?

Mental health care advocates hope the video of police beating the homeless man, who later died, will spark systemic reforms in treatment of the mentally ill, even in this era of funding deficiencies.

May 08, 2012|By Scott Gold, Richard Winton and Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas, speaks to the media after the preliminary hearing in the case of the police officers charged in connection with Kelly Thomas' death.
Ron Thomas, father of Kelly Thomas, speaks to the media after the preliminary… (Joshua Sudock / Pool photo )

"I sleep in trash cans."

It is a minute and 45 seconds into the security camera video. Kelly Thomas, 37, jaws with police officers at a Fullerton bus depot, his arms crossed over his bare chest, his backpack double-strapped. It is the night of July 5, 2011, about 8:30. It's still 80 degrees outside. A few pedestrians wander by. A car passes. There is no indication that the lives of every person on the tape are about to change.

"You planning on going to sleep pretty soon?" one officer asks.

"I'd like to," Thomas replies.

But another officer, Manuel Ramos, isn't done. "It seems like every day we have to talk to you about something," Ramos says, twirling his baton. "Do you enjoy it?"

It is a critical moment — 2:12 on the video. From that point forward, the exchange spirals out of control. At 15:47, Thomas receives the first blow from a baton. At 17:29, officers pile on top of Thomas, who screams: "I can't breathe!" At 21:25, blood gurgles in Thomas' throat. At 21:49, he shrieks: "Daddy! Daddy!" At 22:36 come his last words: "Help me! Help me!"

This week, after the tape was played for the first time in court, it exploded in the public consciousness — one YouTube version had been viewed 91 times each minute — and became an instant touchstone for those who advocate for a more robust and effective mental health system.

Advocates for the mentally ill said they viewed the recording, the centerpiece of the prosecution's case against two officers accused in Thomas' death, as something akin to their Rodney King video.

In the case of the King video, civic activists felt they had a record, at long last, of something they'd been trying to articulate for years: that the relationship between African Americans and Los Angeles police was fundamentally broken. Similarly, advocates for the mentally ill say they now have a record of a scattershot, chronically underfunded mental health system. This is what it looks like, they said, when schizophrenics fend for themselves on the streets, when their only interface with the government is with haplessly unprepared police officers.

"I think I'm a fairly strong woman. I've seen a lot of tragedy over the years. But I am reeling," said Carla Jacobs, a veteran Southern California mental health activist, shortly after watching the recording.

The tape, she noted, will be picked apart during the legal proceedings. Some will argue, she said, that Thomas should have been more respectful, and worked harder to follow instructions. Others will argue that the officers should have received better training. None of that, she contended, will matter in the end.

"As far as I'm concerned, the blame — the guilt — is on the mental health system that left Kelly out on the street and didn't provide him with the treatment that could have prevented this horror," she said. "I hope we can develop a collective memory and recognize the tragedy that we have caused."

In interviews, advocates said the beating death and its recording could fuel meaningful reform — in mental health funding; in the use of coordinated, "wrap-around" social services; in persuading wary or defiant patients to consent to treatment; and, in particular, in the training of police officers to defuse encounters with the mentally ill.

"It is my personal crusade to change the way police officers deal with the mentally ill," said Thomas' father, Ron Thomas.

Kelly Thomas suffered brain injuries, shattered facial bones, broken ribs and a crushed thorax. He was taken off life support by his family and died five days after his beating.

Ramos, 38, is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter; a second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, 40, has been charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force. Ramos faces a life prison term; Cicinelli could be sentenced to four years in prison. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The black-and-white recording, lifted from a city surveillance camera, was played in public for the first time Monday at a preliminary hearing to determine whether the case should go to trial.

The recording was not equipped with sound, but authorities paired it with audio recordings lifted from devices attached to some of the officers' uniforms. On the recording, Ramos is seen pulling on latex gloves — and can be heard telling Thomas that he is "getting ready to f— you up." Cicinelli can be seen striking Thomas — and heard telling a colleague: "I just smashed his face to hell."

"The audio is what is key," Ron Thomas said. "Without the audio the brutality isn't as devastating."

Onlookers in the courtroom were unable to stifle cries of outrage; Judge Walter Schwarm was forced to pause the proceedings in order to remind the courtroom to maintain a sense of decorum.

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