In a perfect world, Kelly Thomas would still be with us today. Perhaps, the amicable redhead would have overcome years of battling schizophrenia, taking the right meds and nudging toward recovery. Maybe he'd be walking the streets of Fullerton, California–with his friend and advocate Leigh White–to offer mental health and safety advice to the local homeless population? Or maybe Kelly would still be wandering the streets, playing his guitar, wearing his signature cowboy hat, and sleeping at local parks–still struggling–but very much alive?
But, we do not live in a perfect world. On a warm July evening in downtown Fullerton, local police responding to a false report of a vagrant breaking into cars–arrived quickly, subdued Thomas forcibly, and proceeded to beat him to death. The assault was savage. So much so, Kelly's friends and family simply could not recognize his swollen, bloodied and pummeled face as he lie dying in his hospital bed.
The stories of what happened that night and who was culpable for Kelly's death vary greatly from version-to-version. Everyone seems to have their own truth: the police, eyewitnesses allegedly covering up, eyewitnesses said to be whistleblowing, Kelly's family and friends and local homeless advocates.
To tell the whistleblowers, family and advocates version, Ron Thomas, a former police officer, member of the military, and father of Kelly Thomas has produced a documentary titled, "Murder in Fullerton, the Kelly Thomas Story."
It's obvious that Kelly's family and local homeless advocates, like Leigh White, believe Kelly was murdered at the hands of three Fullerton Police officers. And, when an outside observer looks st the facts, it also seems obvious. However, each of the officers involved was acquitted. Two by a jury and one had charges of excessive force dropped. A manager at a local bar who allegedly called police and misreported that Thomas was breaking into cars was never prosecuted. So yes, the question of whether Kelly Thomas was murdered because he was a man with schizophrenia is as relevant today as ever? Let's dig deeper.
Did mental illness stigma kill Kelly Thomas?
Usually when we think about the stigma attached to mental illness–we think about a family member or work associate giving you that "You're just crazy look" or a movie stereotyping a mentally ill person as completely irrational and flying over the cuckoo's nest.
Because it's complicated, we only sometimes think about the "trickle down effect" mental illness stigma has on society as a whole, especially as related to public safety and social safety nets. To be sure, our institutions–from law enforcement to local public health agencies– all have a profound impact on the day-to-day reality of the many suffering from mental illness, especially in how the mentally ill are treated in crisis situations.
All of those questions have widespread consequences for the mental health community. Clearly, the need for reforms is acute. As much as I'd like to begin to enumerate the long list of necessary reforms, I think exploring the reforms that have arisen since Thomas' death is more appropriate. After all, we all desperately want to believe Kelly's death had some transcendent meaning. When we look at the ways law enforcement is changing the means, by which, it deals with calls related to mental illness–we can be encouraged that perhaps our hopes are becoming reality:
A fundamental change in attitude.
This article from the Los Angeles Times articulates a fundamental shift in how law enforcement is being trained to deal with communities. Arising from forward looking departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department, is a pedagogy that preaches the gospel of police as community guardians and not soldiers in a war zone. This attitude is critical to de-escalating any mental health crisis.
The will to keep the mentally ill out of the CRIMINAL JUSTICE system is growing.
In Montgomery County, Maryland prosecutors are looking into the possibility of opening a stand alone mental health court. Their reasoning is sound. They believe rates of recidivism among the mentally ill are just too high and that a mental health court that steers folks toward treatment, housing and job placement services is a more effective approach than a turnstile of incarceration.
Implementing 'The Memphis Model." An intelligent, humane approach to dealing with the mentally ill.
I worked as a legislative advocate (I always hated the term lobbyist, too much stigma. ha ha!) for teachers and classified educational workers for more than twenty-five years. In that time, I saw a lot of reforms come and go. The first thing you notice when a reform really takes root it that it gets a nickname–Three-Strikes, Obamacare, Standardized Testing etc. So, I was excited when I first saw the term 'The Memphis Model' pop us in several articles about mental illness and criminal justice reform.
The 'Memphis Model' is based on the idea of diversion. In other words, instead of arresting, booking and prosecuting individuals with mental illness they are 'diverted' to treatment programs where they can get the help they need. This approach has been cost effective– as it saves taxpayers the high cost of incarcerating individuals–and of course, it has improved public safety in the areas where it is being implemented.
From the shadow of scandal to light of reform, from the shame of abuse to the glory of dignity.
A year ago, The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was mired in scandal. The list of ethical offenses is long but the biggest indictment–of the now retired LA County Sheriff Lee Baca's Department– was their treatment of the mentally ill in the county's jail system. Fast forward a year and to newly elected Sheriff Jim McDonnell and change is emerging from the shadowy cocoon of scandal like a monarch butterfly.
Of course, many of these beautiful butterflies of change are being forced on the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department by the Department of Justice. Motivation and intent aside, these changes are indeed substantive.
- Additional steps to recognize, assess and treat prisoners with mental illness, from intake to discharge
- Significant new training on crisis intervention and interacting with prisoners with mental illness for new and existing custody staff
- Improved documentation in prisoners’ medical and mental health records to ensure continuity of care.
- Improved communication between custody and mental health staff and increased supervision of mentally ill and suicidal prisoners.
- Steps to mitigate suicide risks within the jails.
- Increased access to out-of-cell time for mentally ill prisoners.
- Improved investigation and critical self-analysis of suicides, suicide attempts and other critical events.
Listen to NPR story of mental health reforms in LA County Jails.
It's not just LA County that is changing–across the United States law enforcement is beginning to deal with crisis encounters with the mentally ill with greater intelligence and deeper compassion.
Saint Louis County is more than 1,700 miles from Eugene, Oregon yet the 'Memphis Model' of dealing with the mentally ill is being implemented in both localities.
I find it interesting how the Saint Louis TV news reporter opens her segment by using words like "stigma" and phrases like "we don't talk about it too much."
The legacy of Kelly Thomas
Since, I do not know Ron Thomas personally it's hard for me to make the judgment if all of these reforms provide him any solace. I tend to think answer is probably yes. But how can Mr. Thomas not help but think?– "If only mental health reforms were implemented in Fullerton before July, 2011. If only, my son would still be alive."
This all begs answering the tough question "Was Kelly Thomas beaten to death because he was homeless and had schizophrenia–if the answer is 'YES" then who is to blame?
To me, there are many people and institutions to blame for Kelly's death–the police officers who beat him, their commanding officers that failed to train them properly, those who tried to cover up the facts, Orange County's Adult Mental Health Services who failed to train local police departments, the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the Fullerton City Council, the list goes on and on. So much so one can easily modify the words of the old Rolling Stones song and sing, "Shouted Out. Who killed Kelly Thomas? When after all it was you, me and society's stigma."
The only non-guilty parties in the death of Kelly Thomas are, of course, his family and friends, like homeless advocate, poet and artist, Leigh White. We wish them blessings in finding justice for Kelly by educating all of us to the facts of the horrible injustice against their son and friend.
We would like them to know what when we talk about Mental Health Justice– we absolutely mean justice for your gentle, redheaded, and mentally ill son and friend, Kelly Thomas. RIP.