The Case of Kelly Thomas: A Comprehensive Overview

It doesn’t seem likely does it? The whole, holding police accountable notion? Check out this tidbit from Vice:

In 2011, researcher David Packman, whose police misconduct project is now under the umbrella of the Cato Institute, crunched some numbers and found that police officers were significantly less likely to be charged and convicted for crimes than the general public. They also served an average of 29 percent less time in prison. Packman also found that officers were rarely charged with fatal excessive force—and what was Thomas’s death if not the result of “excessive force”? (When cops were charged with that crime, they had a relatively high conviction rate of 50 percent, but that may be a result of prosecutors being very selective about when to bring fatal excessive force charges against cops.)

The case of Kelly Thomas is one I still cannot get my head around. The short story of events is this: Two Fullerton police officers were acquitted of all charges in the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless drifter or more plainly, a human being. The small community was outraged when they heard the verdict given the video and photographic evidence. I want to go over that evidence, but first, it’s worth checking out this video to see how we got here:

It’s a powerful primer to this discussion. Essentially, with the advent of so-called new media (the Internet) in conjunction with technology (smartphones), we are better able to hold the police accountable for their actions such as in the case of Kelly Thomas. At least to that point, accountable in the sense of bringing attention to the case and the circumstances. The police were acquitted, however. But still, it’s a valuable shield against the authority of not just the police, but any government authority.

In any event, let’s look at that evidence.

First, here is the image the prosecution showed in the courtroom:


Officers are notoriously awful in their dealings with the mentally ill. The handling therein is the exact opposite of their procedures and training. Mainly, someone with a mental illness is simply not going to comply with orders in the same manner as someone with full mental faculties about them. Even so, it seems here, according to the statistics gleaned from the video, Kelly was trying to comply in his own way. And he was beaten for it, severely.

Here is the picture that sparked everything, taken by Thomas’ father:


I just do not see how anyone could look at such a picture differential and think, “Yeah, those officers were justified in using such force on that man.” I mean, sure, I don’t want to convict two people (and what would have been a third) to prison based only on this picture, which is why…

My running commentary:

  • Not even one minute into the recording and we can already see an officer standing there with Kelly twirling his baton in his hand. Why? That doesn’t seem normal. Why such intimidation? He seems damn confrontational to me.
  • Officer Ramos even suggests he talks to Kelly every day or at least someone with the department does. so, if he’s such a fixture in the community and has these daily run-ins with police, why are they not better accustom to dealing with him?
  • So, Kelly does mention not wanting to go to jail, but he does comply with a backpack search. But to me, he appears confused by the orders, nonetheless, and really, the whole situation. Then he does, in fact, sit down.
  • Suddenly, when they decide to take him in for suspicion of 496, Ramos turns confrontation. “Feet out in front of you…I’m not fucking around anymore, dude.” Is that necessary from a so-called (or as the defense for him later said) “peace officer?”
  • “Now you see my fists? They’re getting ready to fuck you up if you don’t fucking start listening.” What the fuck is that? Not only, again, is that not right to communicate to a person like that, but it seems a clear threat of force to me from a power-hungry officer.
  • And then all hell breaks loose.
  • One officer can be heard saying, “Choke him out.”
  • Another officer says, “He’s on something.” Well…
  • The hospital records released showed that he suffered brain injuries, a shattered nose, a smashed cheekbone, broken ribs and severe internal bleeding. Thomas also had been shocked with a stun gun “multiple” times, including in the left chest near the heart, those records showed.
  • Ramos, “There’s fucking blood everywhere.”
  • Yes, the officers do tell him to “relax” multiple times, but how do your relax when two and then six people are sitting on you, punching you, kicking you, hitting you with batons and tasing you? What’s resisting arrest and what’s fucking self-defense?
  • Kelly’s last words, “Help me.”
  • Officer Cincinelli says he used the end of his taser and just “start smashing his face to hell.” Wow.
  • They repeat the line, “He was on something because three of us couldn’t even control him.” Yet…toxicology reports show he had nothing in his system.
  • Nice to see the officers having some laughs.
  • Around the 31 minute mark, after they cart him off, you can see a sizable pull of blood.

The defense attorney’s case:


Just doing their job, as peace officers, right? Oddly enough, the video seemed to work in the defense’s favor, as outlined here.

“If the defense can say, ‘Aha, look at this, this is why these officers were able to do this. This is what justified it’ then, whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t matter because the jury wants to fall on the side of the cops,” said Geoff Alpert, an expert on police use of deadly force and a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina.

At the absolute minimum, how the officers weren’t found guilty for using excessive force is mind-blowing to me.  Here is the LA Times editorial on the matter:


Attorneys for Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli said the lawmen were just doing their jobs. “They did what they were trained to do,” attorney John Barnett told The Times.


And that’s the problem. Responsibility for dealing with the mentally ill often falls to the officers who patrol the streets, and they need better training and support to do so safely. Police routinely confront men and women who are erratic or irrational, and they are forced make split-second decisions on whether these individuals pose a deadly risk. Yet too few officers across the country receive adequate training or clear protocols on how to defuse, rather than escalate, dangerous confrontations with the mentally ill.

Exactly right. Even if you believe the officers were somehow in the right here, you ought to believe they need better training in handling those with mental illnesses and the like.

I’m still hanging onto this case because it is one of the most egregious I’ve seen. I don’t understand it. I want to understand it. It’s appalling to me. I hope we can hear from the jurors at some point.

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