A front page story in the March 24 edition of the Orange County Register chronicles special training received by county police officers to deal with mentally ill people following the death of Kelly Thomas in Fullerton three and half years ago.
Though it may be encouraging to read that “First responders at many departments in Orange County – and nationwide – are required to attend sessions where they hear directly from mentally ill people,” the article still conveys the subtle suggestion that Kelly Thomas is dead because he was schizophrenic, and that if only officers had understood his condition, he might be alive today.
The article states that “Thomas, a homeless schizophrenic, failed to follow a Fullerton police officer’s instructions and was brutally beaten as he cried out for his father, asked for help, and complained that he couldn’t breathe.” Fullerton police officers were familiar with Kelly Thomas, and should easily have understood his confusion over orders to place his hands on his knees. And even if they didn’t, and thought he was just willfully disobeying their orders, they should not have struck him first, and should have been able to restrain him without the “brutal beating” acknowledged by the authors of the Register story. Is it for lack of training in dealing with the mentally ill that Manuel Ramos, Jay Cicinelli, and Joseph Wolfe no longer work for the Fullerton Police Department?
When we read that first responders ‘learn that what looks like “resisting arrest” from an officer’s vantage point may actually be abject terror from the suspect’s vantage point. About how that terror can infuse people with uncanny strength and resistance to pain as they attempt to escape, which can escalate a confrontation,’ we cannot help but recall the reaction of Kelly Thomas to the FPD’s Manuel Ramos’ alarming and inappropriate threats of immediate violence. Abject terror would be an understandable reaction by anyone, mentally ill or not, to an armed officer donning latex gloves and saying to them “These hands are going to fuck you up.” The mentally ill have no patent on “uncanny strength and resistance to pain” in moments of extreme stress, and needn’t be singled out as unique in trying with all their might to survive a savage, unwarranted assault by multiple police officers.
Few would doubt that police officers in heavily populated areas will inevitably have to deal with unpredictable, potentially violent behavior by people suffering from mental illnesses. And while Tom Dominguez of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs is right to state in the article that “It is unrealistic to expect officers to take on the role of social workers,” de-escalation of a volatile situation should be just as routine a strategy while contending with the ostensibly sane as it is with the mentally ill.
Training police to recognize signs of mental disorders among civilians is rightfully mandatory. They, and the OC Register, should also remember to recognize pathological violence used by law enforcement against anyone, mentally ill or not.