For those not in Southern California, yesterday a jury acquitted two Fullerton, CA police officers of beating a mentally ill homeless man named Kelly Thomas to death in July 2011. It is a verdict that makes you wonder if the jury channeled that which acquitted George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing last year.
Here is the video mentioned below. It is disturbing, to say the least:
What do you see when you watch the video? I see an obviously ill man whose illness precludes him from having a rational interaction with the police. And I see officers who clearly lose whatever patience they may have had toward this ill man at the outset of the encounter. And when they lose their patience, I see them become unhinged and then unremitting in their use of force, even as Thomas can be heard begging for them to stop, pleading with them that he cannot breathe. It is painful to watch it unfold knowing how it all ends.
To me, this horrible video is the epitome of the use of “excessive force”—at a minimum. So what did those jurors see that I missed in the video? What in turn did I see that they did not? How could it be that not a single member of that jury was willing to stand up for Thomas for even a single night following the lone full day of deliberations? They have not commented publicly since Monday evening but it’s reasonable to assume a few things: 1) They were open to persuasion from defense attorneys offering context about the video, 2) they were willing to give the officers the benefit of the doubt about the reasonable of their fears that Thomas could hurt them, and 3) they accepted the broad swath of California law designed to protect cops from culpability for these sorts of avoidable deaths.
That’s why the defense said, over and over again at trial, that these policemen were, their lawyer said in court, “peace officers … doing what they were trained to do.” And perhaps that is the most frightening component of all of this—one that transforms this local tragedy into a national question. By this verdict jurors told us they believe these officers were merely following their training. So how many police officers in America today are out on patrol and similarly untrained (or emotionally ill-equipped) to handle the mentally ill? How many other police forces have trained their officers to use their weapons in this fashion against homeless people screaming for help?
Immediately after the verdict, the “dad” whose son cried out for help that night was predictably shaken by the acquittals. “I just don’t get it,” said Ron Thomas. He doesn’t but I do. The law protects the police more than it protects the mentally ill in America. If you need more proof then consider the abuse and neglect the mentally ill endure in the nation’s prisons all over the country. So why should we have expected jurors in this case to have honored Thomas’ legacy by holding responsible the men who so savagely beat him? We’ve dehumanized the poor, and the homeless, and the mentally ill, and this is what we get.