California Police Officers Face Murder and Manslaughter Charges For Beating Death Of Mentally Ill Homeless Man

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"California Police Officers Face Murder and Manslaughter Charges For Beating Death Of Mentally Ill Homeless Man"

Kelly Thomas in his hospital bed before his death

Last July, Fullerton, California police officer Manuel Ramos discovered a homeless man named Kelly Thomas near the site of a car break in. Over the course of 15 minutes of questioning, during which Ramos and Thomas both remained peaceful, Ramos eventually discovered that Thomas was carrying someone else’s mail in his backpack.

A quarter hour into this encounter, Ramos escalated to threats of violence. After Thomas ignored several instructions to put his feet out in front of him and his “hands on [his] fucking knees,” Ramos told Thomas “you see my fists? . . . They are getting ready to fuck you up” — and the encounter rapidly degenerated.

It is difficult to watch what happened next, although the full surveillance video of the incident is embedded below. Ramos and another officer order Thomas to “get on the ground,” and then start beating him with their nightsticks. Over the course of the next seven minutes, more and more officers arrive and try to pin Thomas down, until as many as five men surround him. For fifty seconds, most of the view is obscured by a tree, as the sounds of Thomas’ screams are punctuated by the mechanical clicking sound of him being tazed. In his last moments of consciousness, Thomas moans the word “daddy” over and over again before gradually becoming silent, and he was eventually taken to the hospital with an injured brain, shattered facial bones, broken ribs and a crushed thorax.

After watching this video, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that these officers escalated this encounter far too rapidly, and then let it spiral into a brutal incident that eventually took Thomas’ life. Ramos is now on trial for second-degree murder, and his fellow officer Jay Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter. Both men pled not guilty.

Beyond the actions of these two officers, however, there is a larger problem underlying this tragic event. Thomas was schizophrenic, and yet did not obtain the care he needed to stay off the streets and understand the gravity of a hostile encounter with the police. Likewise, Officer Ramos might not have threatened violence and rapidly escalated this encounter after Thomas repeatedly but peacefully disobeyed his orders if he had received better training in how to interact with mentally ill suspects. If Ramos and Cincinelli acted as brutally as the surveillance video suggests, then they deserve to spend many years learning to control their aggression behind bars. But Americans like Thomas deserve a whole lot more than a media-fueled trial — they deserve a full examination of how to ensure that no incident like this one occurs again.

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