I can’t stop questioning the acquittal this week of the two former Fullerton police officers who in 2011 led a group of six policeman in the brutal beating of an unarmed homeless, schizophrenic man, Kelly Thomas, which caused his death a few days later. I grew up not far from where the beating took place, at a downtown Fullerton bus depot near the Amtrak station, around the corner from one of my favorite “fancy” restaurants from my youth.
Why didn’t the police just ask Thomas to leave the parking lot, where he was reported to be rattling car doors? The police officers later said that Thomas was uncooperative, and thought he was high or drunk. But toxicology tests showed that Thomas had no drugs or alcohol in his system. But he was a confused, difficult homeless guy who had trouble following commands and pissed off the police officers to the point where one of the accused officers, Manuel Ramos, put on his gloves and then said, “ Now you see my fists?...They’re getting ready to f—k you up”.
The surveillance videotape, shown at the trial, goes on to show six police officers beating and then jumping on top of Thomas, while he is down on the ground, and the hospital photos of Thomas mangled face are absolutely horrifying. Yet given a strong defense and weak prosecution, the jury couldn’t move “beyond reasonable doubt” and found the two defendants not guilty on all counts. The U.S. Department of Justice may yet file federal civil rights charges against the officers.
Equally disturbing is the comment made by defense attorneys reported in the LA Times that the officers were “following their training, not out of control.” Did their training include beating an unarmed suspect bloody and raw, to the point of losing consciousness? As a parent disability advocate, I can’t help but wonder if a suspect were a hefty, confused, developmentally disabled adult, would the police reaction have been the same?
There is no question that police officers have the right to use force in carrying out their mission of public safety but as “first responders” in every sense of the word, their training can and must encompass how to identify people who have physical, mental, cognitive or developmental impairments, In addition, they need to have pre-established protocols in place to address the unique challenges of these diagnoses, other than resorting to expletives, their fists and batons.