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Steve Lopez: Fullerton police must explain homeless man's death

August 4, 2011 | 10:28 am

Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, stands next to a memorial for his son at the Fullerton Transportation Center.

Ron Thomas, the father of the young man who died after a violent confrontation with Fullerton police, wants to know what many others want to know.

Steve LopezWhat exactly happened the night of July 5, and did several officers need to use such force against 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, who was diagnosed in his early 20s with schizophrenia?

I've spoken twice briefly, by phone, to Ron Thomas, who once was a cop.

According to witness accounts, Kelly Thomas was calling out for his dad as police used a Taser on him when he allegedly resisted arrest.

We've planned a get-together to talk about who his son was, about the challenges of caring for a loved one with a mental illness, and about the misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the disease. We'll talk about the effectiveness and challenges of medication, and the critical shortage of counseling, housing and supportive services for those who, through no fault of their own, are stricken with a mental illness. I'll report on our conversation in my Sunday column.

We don't know all the details yet about July 5, and police have been mum even as hundreds of citizens packed a City Hall meeting demanding answers, and there are even official calls now for the police chief to resign.

Confronting someone with a mental illness can be dangerous, just like a confrontation with anyone else, but it doesn't have to be.

Did Fullerton police have proper training for such encounters?

Even if Kelly Thomas resisted arrest, did police escalate a situation that might have been defused if handled differently?

Was it necessary for several cops to apply the force that left Thomas, unarmed as far as we know, badly beaten and in a coma?

Does the Police Department have a special unit involving police and mental health reps to respond to such incidents, as the LAPD and other departments do, and if not why not?

Ron Thomas wants to know all of that and more, and hopes this tragedy educates police and the public and leads to policy changes. He is soft-spoken and understandably somber, but he's clearly driven, as well, trying as best as he can to answer his son's call.


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-- Steve Lopez

Photo: Ron Thomas, the father of Kelly Thomas, stands next to a memorial for his son at the Fullerton Transportation Center. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press