It was a warm summer night in Orange County California on July 5 2011, when a homeless man suffering from Schizophrenia was approached by police officers who saw him loitering in the street. His name was Kelly Thomas and he died because of stigma.
According to wikipedia:
On July 5, 2011, at about 8:30 PM, officers of the Fullerton Police Department responded to a call from the management of the Slidebar that someone was vandalizing cars near the Fullerton Transportation Center. While investigating, they encountered the shirtless and disheveled Thomas and attempted to search him. According to statements given by the officers, Thomas was uncooperative and resisted when they attempted to search him, so backup was called. "Now you see my fists?" Fullerton police officer Manny Ramos asked Thomas while slipping on a pair of latex gloves. "Yeah, what about them?" Thomas responded. "They are getting ready to fuck you up," said Ramos. A video of the event surfaced, and Thomas can be heard repeatedly screaming in pain while officers are heard repeatedly asking him to place his arms behind his back. He audibly responds "Okay, I'm sorry!" and "I'm trying!" while the officers stretch his arm back. The police officers claim that, unable to get Thomas to comply with the requests, they used a taser on him (up to five times according to a witness statement, and the video footage), and in the video Thomas can be heard screaming "Dad! Dad!". Six officers were involved in subduing Thomas, who was unarmed and had a history of mental illness. Thomas was initially taken to St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton but was transferred immediately to the UC Irvine Medical Center with severe injuries to his head, face, and neck. One of the paramedics testified that he was first instructed to attend to a police officer's minor injury and then noticed Thomas lying unconscious in a pool of blood.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas gave a detailed account of the events during a press conference on September 21, 2011. Using digital audio recording devices carried by the officers, surveillance video from a pole camera at the Fullerton Transportation Center, and other evidence, Rackauckas provided evidence that Thomas did comply with orders from Officer Ramos, who had put on latex gloves and asked Thomas "Now see my fists? They are getting ready to fuck you up." Rackauckas went on to describe how Thomas begged for his life, before being beaten to death.
Rackauckas announced that according to the Orange County Coroner, the cause of death was "asphyxia caused by mechanical chest compression with blunt cranial-facial injuries sustained during physical altercation with law enforcement." Rackauckas said Thomas died because of the force of the officers on his chest, which made it impossible for him to breathe. This caused Thomas to become unconscious. He then slipped into a coma and died when taken off life support five days later.
According to Rackauckas, the coroner stated that the injuries to Thomas' face and head contributed to his death. Also contributing to his death were brain injuries, facial and rib fractures, and the extensive bruising and abrasions he suffered during the beating, which left him lying in a "growing pool of blood," Rackauckas said. The toxicology report shows that Thomas had no illicit drugs or alcohol in his system. Thomas was severely bleeding and struggled and pleaded, "I can't breathe," "Dad, help me." The DA stated that the officers did not reduce their level of force during the nearly 10-minute assault, however Thomas combatted with officers for almost eight full minutes.
This isn't going to be a post bashing police as a whole. Police men and women have very tough and stressful jobs. Some of them take advantage of the power that is given to them as police officers but many do not and many are fine upstanding individuals that help make our streets safer at night. They protect and serve and I am thankful for that. What this post is going to be about is how the mentally ill are perceived, and this is exactly how they are perceived. As dangerous homicidal criminals. Mr. Thomas had suffered from Schizophrenia for over fifteen years before his death. He was homeless. He had reacted violently to his family members a few times before and had, had prior contact with the police several times and because of this, he is dead. He was assumed guilty, he was judged guilty by the police officers in this case, and he payed dearly for it. Not because he was doing anything dangerous or was pointing a deadly weapon at the officers but because he wasn't able to able understand the officers shouts to put his hands on the ground. Instead he put his hands on his knees and this is what angered the police officers so much that they perceeded to beat this defenseless mentally ill man to death. Mr. Thomas was scared. As it turns out, he had every reason to be. Mr. Thomas was not a murderer. He was not a "career criminal". He was simply a man that suffered from mental demons and due to not being able to continue help for those demons, his life had spiraled into homelessness.... A crime these officers, apparently felt was punishable by extreme force.
There is a video of his attack but I will not be showing it here. If you are interested in seeing it or the gruesome picture of what his face looked like after being repeatedly smashed in the face reportedly with the butt of the tazer gun as well as the officer's closed fists, you can easily search it. I have already watched that disturbing video and seen the pictures and I truly believe it will haunt me for the rest of my life. I think it is important to note that he screamed for his father several times while being beaten to death. A voice I will probably never get out of my head. As a mother I can not imagine how awful and heartbreaking it would be to know that your child was screaming for your help while being murdered. And let's call it what is was, murder. They murdered a man in the middle of the street because they felt like it. Because he was homeless. Because he was less than to them because he suffered from a mental illness.
This is more than just a newspaper clipping or media frenzy for me. I did not know Mr. Thomas and yet I feel like I am Mr. Thomas. That all of us that suffer from mental illness are in some small way, Mr. Thomas. Not that most of us have faced the extremes that Mr. Thomas did that night, but that we all are familiar with the treatment we often times receive from others when they learn we suffer from mental illness. The wary glances. The snide remarks. The fear in others faces. The misconceptions. The judgment that we are dangerous, scary, and or violent. That we are unhinged and could pop off at any moment and become spree killers or go on murderous rampages. It is not totally their fault for thinking this way. A great deal of fault rests on the media that glorifies murders committed by the minescule amount of mentally illness sufferers. It makes no difference to them, that most violence is committed with the involvement of addiction problems, gang violence, or domestic abuse. Those murders are much less sensationalized by the media. It isn't as thrilling to people as the false belief that crazy axe wielding murders roam the streets looking for victims to attack. In reality, violence committed by the mentally ill is a much smaller statistic than people think. I am not saying it doesn't happen, I am just saying it doesn't happen nearly as often as people are lead to believe. And there is a reason for that. Everyone feels safer if there is a scapegoat to blame all of our issues on. A more factual statistic is that people that suffer from mental illness are twice as likely to be victims of violence and Mr. Thomas's life is an extreme example of this.
And what do we do it about? How do we stop innocent people like Mr. Thomas and the estimated half of the 375-500 individuals shot by police each year, in this country that are thought to have suffered from mental illness, from being killed? Because Mr. Thomas is not alone.There has been others with less fan fare and less media coverage. And, before I am taken out and tarred and feathered, I do realize that some of these were justifiable shootings and could not have been handled any other way.
There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to how to deal with people that suffer from mental illness. How to safely arrest them or safely encounter them while conducting police business and I have to say, my honest belief is that the biggest reason this is happening is because of stigma. The fear that sets in once you learn a person has a mental illness and the perception that it makes them more dangerous. More scary. Even evil. Stigma is not just the cross that all of the mentally ill bear, it can also be a death sentence.
Something needs to change. When people can look at another human being and say such things as, "Now, do you see my fists, they are getting ready to fuck you up," knowing that person has a disorder and can't understand you properly, there is a problem. When compassion for another human being is nonexistent simply because they are considered less than, there is a problem. When people start to blame the victim because they are uncomfortable that the victim was homeless and or suffered from mental illness, there is a problem. When a jury watches a video of police officers murdering a defenseless unarmed man because he is confused, scared, and put his hands on his knees instead of the ground like they ordered, and acquits them, there is a problem. There is a problem in this country and it has to be talked about.
There needs to be some kind of training on how to deal with those that suffer from mental illness without it being shoot or kill now and ask questions later. The stigma and false belief that everyone that suffers from mental illness is dangerous has to stop. The lies and glorification by the media that helps reinforce these ridiculous accusations has to stop. People are dying. Innocent people that have committed no crime but are are judged to have because they suffer from mental illness, has to stop.
It sickens me. It breaks my heart. It scares me. This isn't just a tragedy it is also a sign that something is very wrong here. That something is broken. Our system is broken when it comes to dealing with the mentally ill. Suffering from a mental illness should not be a death sentence and yet for Mr. Thomas and many others like him, it has become one. Often times, it is swept under the rug and receives little to know media coverage because people don't understand mental illness and people have always been afraid of what they don't understand. It has become acceptable to label anyone violent as possibly mentally ill. It has become commonplace to place blame of all the ills of our country on the mentally ill. It has been protocol to call murders, abusers, and kidnappers as mentally ill even when there has been no actual diagnoses to confirm that. News broadcasters have spoken such gems as, "Ariel Castro, who is arguably the face of mental illness, a man described as a monster". It is a no wonder people assume incorrectly that mental illness is dangerous.
And I am not just referring to Schizophrenia. I am referring to those that suffer from any mental illness. OCD, Bipolar, Personality disorders, DID, GAD, SAD, Depression....the list goes on and on. We are all under the same umbrella. We are all mentally ill. We are all looked at the same way. We are all dealing with stigma on a daily basis and it is wrong. It is hurtful and in the case of Mr. Thomas, it was deadly.
We have to continue our efforts to speak out. We have to keep informing the public the truth about mental illness and the truthful statistics that the media is so inclined to ignore. We have to keep pushing our law makers to stand up for us and to funnel money back into treatments for the mentally ill that work. Back into homes and hospitals that can help those of us who have become homeless and unable to receive proper psychiatric care. We have to demand that this country come up with better training for our police officers on how to work with the mentally ill safely for both the sufferer and the officer. And we need to demand to stop being portrayed in the negative, false, and hurtful light that we have been placed in by the media. We have to keep trying to erase stigma before it kills more innocent people.
We need help. We need resolution and we need to work in earnest to end the stigma that has crippled us for so long. The horror of stigma has to end and only we can end it by being advocates for ourselves and other like us. Mr. Kelly Thomas and the horrible and unjust crime that happened to him should never be allowed to be forgotten. We should never allow ourselves to forget just how deadly stigma can be. Just how awful we can be treated simply because we suffer. How false misconceptions can have serious and extreme consequences. Most all of all we should never forget Mr. Thomas because he was a person and his life mattered. He mattered and he deserves not just the remembrance that he suffered from a mental illness and died tragically and unjustly because of that fact, but that he was a person with family and friends. We must never let ourselves forget what the police officers in this case so obviously did. That Mr. Thomas had a right to live, a right to love, and a right to be treated like a fellow human being. Because he was one.