Our View: Mentally ill are still dying in confrontations with cops

January 17, 2014 

The sad life and horrible death of Kelly Thomas should not be for naught. Thomas was the mentally ill man who died after a police beating in the city of Fullerton in July 2011.

A jury acquitted two officers of all charges related to the death on Monday. We won’t second-guess the jurors who heard the evidence. But we abhor the mental health care system that failed Thomas and people like him. Police officers, who too often become front-line mental health care workers, need better training for dealing with mentally ill people.

The confrontation occurred like many. Officers responded to a complaint about someone prowling around cars in downtown Fullerton, and found Thomas, 37, disheveled, shirtless and untreated.

As witnesses took video – the main evidence in the trial – one of the officers held his gloved fists to Thomas’ face. Moments later six officers swarmed Thomas, who was on the ground.

“I can’t breathe,” Thomas is heard to say. He pathetically called out, “Dad, help me.”

His father, Ron Thomas, is a former sheriff’s deputy who has been Thomas’ main defender, along with Thomas’ mother. After the verdict, Ron Thomas was quoted as saying: “I’ve never seen something so bad happen to a human being and have it done by on-duty police officers.”

Unfortunately, similar situations are all too common. Too often, cops, rather than doctors or nurses, are the first people to face severely mentally ill people.

Since 2009, there have been five deadly encounters between law enforcement and mentally ill people in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. California led the nation in the 1960s and 1970s emptying psychiatric hospitals. Since then, it has led the nation in the numbers of mentally ill people in jails and prisons.

Responding to the inhumanity of the situation, voters in 2004 approved a special tax for mental health care. That money, $1 billion a year, has helped many mentally ill people.

California has used some money for police training. More must be done. The training is expensive and time-consuming; it takes officers off their beats for about a week. The alternative, however, can be worse.

In Orange County, Supervisor John Moorlach is pushing the Board of Supervisors to implement Laura’s Law, named for Nevada County college student Laura Wilcox, who was shot and killed by a mentally ill man 13 years ago. If Moorlach succeeds, Orange County judges would be empowered to decree that severely mentally ill people undergo intensive mental health care while continuing to live in their homes. Orange County would be the largest county in the state to fully embrace the law.

All counties should adopt it, or programs similar to it.

Kelly Thomas’ life ought to count for something. Police and policymakers should commit themselves anew to better training and improved care for the people who cannot care for themselves.

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