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Where was help for Alesia?

A desperate mother who gave up her children had nowhere to turn.

September 07, 2012|Sandy Banks
  • Ada Moses, center, grandmother of Alesia Thomas, speaks during a news conference as Najee Ali, right, holds a photo of Thomas.
Ada Moses, center, grandmother of Alesia Thomas, speaks during a news conference… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

The official police account is terse and clear:

Alesia Thomas left her two children, 12 and 3, outside a police station in Southeast Los Angeles in the middle of the night. When LAPD officers went to her apartment to find out why, she told them she was addicted to drugs and couldn't take care of the kids. They tried to place her under arrest but she "actively resisted" and a struggle ensued.

A short time later, she was dead.

A patrol car camera captured some of the action: She'd been wrestled to the ground and stomped.

The case barely made the news when it happened in July. Now it's become the centerpiece of three violent use-of-force cases dogging the Los Angeles Police Department.

Last week, a handcuffed woman was slammed to the ground in Tujunga after arguing with officers over a cellphone ticket. Last month, a 20-year-old skateboarder was punched by an officer in Venice after he was stopped for riding along the wrong side of the street.

The three incidents have sparked public concern about whether the department is backsliding on its commitment to civility and restraint.

Police Chief Charlie Beck says the cases are aberrations, not reflective of the department. All are being investigated; a captain in the San Fernando Valley case has already been demoted.

Amid evidence that Thomas was threatened and kicked as she was being arrested, the five officers involved are temporarily off street duty.

But the case has me wondering about something more basic and abstract than police brutality claims:

How did this troubled woman morph from desperate struggling mother into dangerous criminal suspect?

::

She might have been a drug addict, but give her credit: She didn't dump her kids at a crack house.

But when Alesia Thomas, a single mother, left her 12-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter on a sidewalk outside a police station in South Los Angeles in the middle of the night, that act alone landed her on the wrong side of the law.

Abandoning her children that way was criminally irresponsible, said LAPD Asst. Chief Michel Moore, who heads investigations for the department.

"If that mother has problems and couldn't live up to the responsibilities of being a parent, she should have sought help from family members" or social workers at the Department of Children and Family Services, he said.

"If she chooses not to do that and subjects the children to conditions that endanger them, then she is committing a crime. And we consider child endangerment a very serious crime."

But just because you can arrest somebody, does that mean you ought to? Thomas' children were turned over to social workers and are living with her mother now. I can't help but think Thomas might still be alive if police had kept the handcuffs on their belts and offered, instead, a helping hand.

Moore said that's the kind of "rear-view mirror approach" to police work that makes officers' jobs so hard.

When her children walked into the police station, officers were sent to Thomas' apartment "to find out what was she thinking, why did she do this, what's the environment like," Moore said.

She was "impaired" when they got there, the officers said, and told them something to the effect of: I don't want these kids.

"It's not our responsibility to turn a blind eye and say, 'Well, she's got a drug problem and she's just a victim' or whatever."

Addiction might be an explanation, but it's not an excuse for a crime, he said.

"She shifted the responsibility of caring for her children to the Police Department.... Our responsibility includes holding the mother accountable for that," Moore said.

In hindsight, Moore said, he wonders too if they should have done things differently. "Was this the best means, the wisest route? Unfortunately, we'll never know because of the tragedy that she suffered.

"We're the agency of last resort. At 2 in the morning, there's no one else for us turn to and say, 'Hey, can you handle this problem for us?'"

::

Her family members insist that Alesia Thomas wasn't addicted to drugs. "Drug addicts don't function," her mother, Sondra Thomas, told me. "And she could function very well."

Her children were clean, well-dressed, well-fed. When she went to clean out her dead daughter's apartment, "the refrigerator was stocked with food," she said, including a giant box of those frozen waffles her son liked so much.

"Her kids had every video game you can call the name of," Sondra Thomas said. "She had a mixer, a blender, a washer and dryer, there was everything in there she needed for her and her kids."

Everything, it seems, except someone who understood what she might be going through.

"She was depressed, and tired. Real tired," her mother recalled. "The kids were getting on her nerves." She had been feuding with her son over his obsession with video games.

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