Almost four years ago, I got an email from my editor at The Guardian, asking me if I was interested in writing about the Kelly Thomas case. I was, very much, and I did. I had been watching the story unfold with growing anger, fear, and resignation, and I was proud to be one of the voices who refused to let the story die, bringing Thomas to global attention and demanding justice for him.
I remember Kelly Thomas, but perhaps you do not. He was a 37-year-old man with schizophrenia, and one night the Fullerton Police beat him so badly that he fell into a coma. Six days later, after extensive medical care, face swollen and bruised and bleeding, he was dead. The community waited to see what would happen next, and protest started to seep from the cracks as the story slowly crept through the media.
Rather unusually, the case made the national news. Usually, when a mentally ill person is killed by police, it’s not considered newsworthy. It might merit a few column inches in the local paper, but nothing beyond that. Thomas’ story, however, spread, and spread, and spread. Anonymous descended upon Fullerton. The community arose in outrage. They wanted to know why police officers had chosen to beat a largely defenseless man to death in the plain view of a bus full of horrified people.
Earlier this year, the officers involved were acquitted of all responsibility, and one of them, Jay Cicinelli, even expressed a desire to rejoin the police force. Where, presumably, he can get back to work beating innocent people to death over cries of protest from bystanders with the help of his thuggish friends. It’s almost astounding he and his fellow officer were suspended from duty in the first place, and not at all surprising that he thinks he’s entitled to come back to work despite being demonstrably unsafe in a law enforcement position.
He wouldn’t be the first or the last officer permitted to return to the line of duty after committing an act of brutality against a civilian. Abusive police officers aren’t necessarily barred from service, as long as they stay within some sort of thin, ill-defined defensible blue line. Police officers close ranks around each other, too, protecting themselves and their community from criticism and justifying acts of police violence that end in tragic deaths, like that of Kelly Thomas. Surrounded by each other, they can do no wrong.
At the time, Kelly Thomas’ death created a lot of angry sentiment, and a lot of angry promises about reforming the system and changing the way police officers interacted with mentally ill people. Yet, nothing changed, because nothing ever changes when mentally ill people are murdered by police — after some token comments and polite murmuring, everyone returns to baseline, until it happens again and people become outraged again. At the time of the acquittal, people again became angry, but again, the issue quickly faded from the public mind and eye, becoming just another incident in a litany of sad things that has happened in the world.
I remember Kelly Thomas. I remember Fullerton.
And I know full well that the time to talk about reforming policing isn’t in the wake of an incident like this, when feelings run high and police are in defensive mode, but on one of the rare occasions that police haven’t shot someone with mental illness in a week or so. When their guard is down, so to speak, and they are more open to the idea of interacting with disabled people and the mental health community to talk about how to better serve mentally ill people. Because Kelly Thomas shouldn’t be dead, and neither should any of the other mentally ill people who have been ruthlessly cut down by police officers.
Reform in police departments needs to start with a better system for identifying officers who pose a danger to members of the civilian public, as well as their fellow officers and their romantic or sexual partners — domestic violence is a huge problem in US law enforcement. Those officers need to be retrained, and in some cases, they may need to be relieved from duty. People with violent, abusive tendencies should not be trusted to act as law enforcement, because this is a career that involves high pressure, high stress situations, many of which require a very rapid response and fast action. These are not great circumstances for people who are abusive and may default to abusive behaviour even if they’ve undergone sensitivity training and other interventions.
The culture in police forces also needs to change. Mentally ill people are not the enemy, and aren’t a threat in the vast majority of cases. Civilians aren’t trash, and people who are sick and need help shouldn’t be figures of mockery. Changing the culture goes a long way towards adjusting attitudes about violence: how often are babies shot in the back by police? Relatively infrequently, thanks to social and cultural attitudes both within and without the police force about infants.
Finally, police forces, as I say time and time again, shouldn’t be first responders to mental health crises in the first place. It’s time for trained, dedicated mental health response teams who can respond to people experiencing problems. Police should receive appropriate training in interacting with mentally ill suspects and disabled people in general, along with a specific training course on how to deal with a mentally ill person who is a danger to herself or others, because interactions with mentally ill people will inevitably happen.
But leaving abusive, untrained police officers as the first line of defense is not a sound social choice, let alone a fair or kind ethical decision.