Deadly Police Encounters: Does Being Mentally Ill Put You At Greater Risk? Absolutely!


I’ve intentionally held off from writing about the verdict delivered in the killing of Kelly Thomas because I wanted to think about what the jurors’ decision means.

Thomas was a thirty-seven year old homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia who lived on the streets of Fullerton, California.  The police approached him after a business owner  complained that someone in the area was vandalizing parked cars.  The police claimed Thomas resisted when they tried to search him.  At that point, they called for backup and decided to cuff him.

Part of the reason why this tragedy has outraged mental health advocates is because much of what happened was captured on video. You can hear the officer’s exchange with Thomas.

“Now you see my fists?” Fullerton police officer Manny Ramos asks Thomas while slipping on a pair of latex gloves.

“Yeah, what about them?” Thomas responds.

“They are getting ready to f*** you up,” said Ramos.

Thomas can be heard repeatedly screaming in pain while officers demand that he place his arms behind his back. He audibly responds “Okay, I’m sorry!” and “I’m trying!” while the officers stretch his arm back.

The police officers claim that, unable to get Thomas to comply with their requests, they used a taser on him (up to five times according to a witness statement, and the video footage.) In the video, Thomas can be heard screaming “Dad! Dad!”

Police officers are rarely charged with murder when they commit a fatal shooting, but the video taped scene was so disturbing that a local District Attorney accused Officer Ramos of one count of second degree murder and one count of involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli and Officer Joseph Wolfe were each charged with one count of felony involuntary manslaughter and one count of excessive force.  On January 13, Ramous and Cicinelli were found not guilty of all charges by a jury.  After losing that case, the D.A. announced he would not pursue the case against Officer Wolfe.

This is yet another incident where someone with a mental illness died during a random encounter with the police.  Mental health advocates typically react by calling for more Crisis Intervention Team training for police officers. That’s good because CIT training helps police better understand mental illnesses and how to react appropriately without endangering their lives or the life of the individual who is sick.

A few advocates look beyond CIT and raise questions about why Kelly Thomas was homeless and not receiving treatment for his mental illness. Those are valid questions too.

I would like to raise another issue. Why did jurors issue a verdict that seems so unjust?

Unfortunately, we don’t know because jurors have not spoken about their verdict. We are left to speculation. Had the Kelly Thomas case been an aberration, his beating and the surprise verdict might be more easily disregarded. But the Thomas case is not an isolated event.

In Fairfax County, where I live, David Masters was fatally shot by a police officer while sitting behind the wheel of his pickup truck at a stop light in a busy intersection. The police were responding to a complaint by a business owner who said Masters had taken a potted plant without paying for it. When Masters began edging his vehicle forward after three officers had surrounded it, one of the officers fired, killing him. Masters had a mental illness, but was unarmed and had no criminal charges filed against him, especially ones that would have required deadly force. Nor was his decision to drive forward endangering the officers. Despite this, our local prosecutor declined to file criminal charges. Instead, the police officer was later quietly fired by the department.

In the Thomas case it was jurors who refused to punish the officers. In the Fairfax County case, it was a newly elected prosecutor. In both, I believe two prejudices played a role in what happened.

(1.) As a society, we like to blame individuals with mental illnesses for their maladies. If an individual has schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, he must have done something wrong to get sick. Therefore he deserves whatever fate befalls him. To think otherwise would be to admit that a mental disorder could happen to anyone and jurors and prosecutors don’t want to believe that because then a mental disorder could happen to them or someone who they love. They want someone to blame and the victim is the logical choice.

(2.) Individuals with mental illnesses are somehow less worthy as people. They aren’t like the rest of us and therefore their lives are not as valuable to the public, certainly not as valuable as a police officer’s. The public respects, honors and values the life of police  officers. It does not respect someone who is homeless and has a possible drug or alcohol addiction.

I understand that police need to be given latitude when it comes to using force. But I also am confident that there would have been more public outcry in these two cases if the victims had not had a mental illness. Remove mental illness from these incidents and the beating of a 37 year old man who was minding his own business during an evening outing and the fatal shooting of a motorist who had started inching into the intersection before a red light changed, would have been viewed much differently.

Our challenge is to remind the public, police, prosecutors, and judges that Kelly Thomas and David Masters did not deserve to die simply because they came into contact with the police and had a mental disorder. Having a mental illness does not make a person’s life worth less than the officer who elected to take that life from him.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.