California Dreamin’ Madness

SE Smith on an incident that has apparently ‘made headlines around the world’ despite the fact that it is the first time I’ve heard of it, and I’m a bit of a news junkie…

On 5 July, police officers in Fullerton, California, responded to a call that a man appeared to be breaking into cars in a bus station parking lot. What could have been a routine call turned into a tragedy when six officers allegedly beat a 37-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia so severely that he fell into a coma. Six days later, Kelly Thomas was taken off life support and died.

So, a story about police brutality?

This is a story that could easily have fallen through the cracks. Cases like this are common across the US and they rarely make the news..


What, people are regularly beaten to death by police? I think that might actually make more than headlines if so…

Approximately one third of the homeless population in the US experiences severe mental illness and many homeless people lack access to mental health services, particularly in California, where a series of brutal cuts to mental health programmes have gutted county and regional agencies.

Ah. Right. It’s the mental illness that’s common.

Well, it is California…

.There are many Kelly Thomases in California.

You said it, love!

One man, however, decided that Thomas’s death should not go unremarked. Tony Bushala, a real estate developer who runs the site Friends for Fullerton’s Future, was outraged, and he refused to let up, publicising the story until the mass media picked it up.

A classic case of ‘socially responsible citizen journalism’, as this dim woman seems to think?

Well, no:

The facts of the case are difficult to discern; the Fullerton police department has been extremely tightlipped about the case, and refuses to release statements and video from the officers involved, who remain unnamed. Speculation about the case fill in some of the gaps; Friends for Fullerton’s Future has revealed the names of the police officers it suspects were involved, for instance.

That was very ‘socially responsible’, wasn’t it? And note that the names were just those of police officers it suspects were involved.

If anything happens to the person or homes of those named police officers, I hope they sue your company into the ground, Mr Bushala.

And in California, they aren’t short of lawyers, I hear…

What is known is that police received a call about break-ins, and found Thomas at the bus stop. They approached him for questioning and he attempted to flee. Witnesses at the scene claim that the police tried to restrain him and when he struggled, they commenced a beating with their flashlights and used Tasers to subdue him.

There’s no excuse for any excessive violence shown, but it seems that taser isn’t as effective as it should be in subduing the violent mentally ill.

Something to think about for Inspector Gadget’s readers?

Ron Thomas, Kelly’s father, is an ex-law enforcement officer who is deeply troubled by the case. He claims that he’s been offered $900,000 to settle the matter out of court, and is considering accepting the money to create a fund in honour of his son. Meanwhile, Fullerton has exploded with rage over the alleged police brutality case, a highly unusual occurrence for Orange County.

Orange County is one of the most conservative counties in California. It is strongly Republican and very pro-law enforcement. Yet protesters are showing up on the streets and outside the police station to express their rage about the Thomas case.

Yes, protesters are showing up and they can’t possibly be from out of state, or rent-a-cause professional protesters. Ms Smith knows this, because she’s interviewed them all, has she?

If she has, she makes no mention of it…

Some media reports on the story claim that Kelly Thomas was gentle and kind, statements repeated by many people who knew the man, who was a fixture on the streets of Fullerton. Others claim that he was a “problem”. Thomas certainly had clashes with police at various points during his life and racked up an assortment of charges related to these incidents; Ron Thomas claims that his son went on and off medication, a common issue for homeless people with mental illness, and may have been agitated and unable to understand commands from police.

Then he shouldn’t have been allowed to wander around, should he?

So, Ms Smith is going to argue for less ‘care in the community’, is she?

Well, what do you think?

The case highlights the need for better mental health services in California, where community care could be made available at a fraction of the costs required to deal with untreated mental illness, which often lands people in jail and prison.


It also illustrates the continued need for better police training in handling interactions with mentally ill people; trained officers could have defused the situation without manhandling their suspect.

Could they? In your home country, don’t they call that ‘Monday morning quarterbacking’?

When, do you suppose, was the last time Ms Smith attempted to arrest a violent mental patient?

Yeah. That’s what I figured.

5 comments for “California Dreamin’ Madness

  1. dearieme
    August 15, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    The great movement to stop providing madmen with places of asylum, and to turf them out into the street to sink or swim, started in California in, (I think) the late 60s or early 70s. Its fruits are cruel.

    This story reminded me of the generalisation that Americans often approve of stern policing in the abstract but often distrust (or even loathe) the police they have actually encountered.

    • August 16, 2011 at 5:31 am

      ” Its fruits are cruel.”

      Well, I’m sure that old slur on California as the ‘Land of Fruits and Nuts’ isn’t literally true… 🙂

  2. John Leon
    August 15, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    I know people who have mental illness, the closest, a cousin who I watched as he tragically fell into the horror of mental breakdown and now has to live a life of patronised indifference from the social services, a truly kind, intelligent and charismatic human being whos life could be made much better but for the lack of interest or comittment from the social services.
    Another person has led a life of true horror, involved a very sordid story and one common reaction to her tale was why did’nt she walk away, well even though she was literally lived the life of a prisoner she did eventually and was praised by the detectives who convicted the serial pimp who had entrapped her and many others but the experiences plunged her deep into an uncurable mental condition which medical science knows virtually nothing about and she continues to suffer each and every day.
    Yet one more who I lost contact with nearly 20 years ago after attempting to set fire to the ward he was being held in in Nortwood park hospital in north London had previously spent a total of 8 years in Broadmoor in two stretches as being diagnosed as a paranoid schitzophrenic with physcotic tendencies. No doubt about it, you would not want to have met him when he had decided to stop taking his medication and the police were VERY cautious around him such was his reputation but you certainly knew he was sliding into a mental abyss and therefore to avoid him as he drew a very clear line: when things were normal it was he who would make contact; he was by contrast a very affable person to be around when he was in his more positive periods of life and it was he who gave me an important insight into the misery that mental illness inflicts upon its many and varied victims. Everyone views reality through THEIR senses, even if that reality is false and is a halucination or illusion, a mentaly perturbed person will believe what they believe they are experiencing and NO other outside influence will persuade them otherwise, the only way to calm them down is to make them believe you are an ally which usualy means non aggression, calm, humour and respect which these officers lacked ( apparently ). It is quite right for Mr. Bushala to try to illustrate the appalling lack of judgement in dealing not only with a debilitated person but the son of one of the police force and I would imagine his frustration at the blank wall he has received is a motivation for his attempts to name and shame.
    So in reponse to your last paragraph Ms. JuliaM many mentaly ill people can and do live in the comunity ( although there are those who because of the severity of the disease can never be allowed out of an asylum ) and pose no real threat as I am witness to, even if they do go off the rails from time to time, to beat them to death because they are incapable of a coherent response through their affliction is not really what most people would consider a civilised response.

    • August 16, 2011 at 5:33 am

      “…many mentaly ill people can and do live in the comunity ( although there are those who because of the severity of the disease can never be allowed out of an asylum ) and pose no real threat …”

      Indeed they can, if (and it’s a big if) they have a support structure to sustain them and a quick, appropriate response should they stop taking their meds. In California it seems they have neither.

      And over here, too, if the murder and suicide rate is anything to go by…

  3. August 16, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Over the years I have asked several mental health professionals why it is that sufferer A ends up in 24/7 fully staffed small residential units paid for by the taxpayer while suffer B ends up in gaol or, in this sad case Death By Cop.

    Their response is always a variation on “luck”.

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