Steve Lopez: Kelly Thomas death should be call to action
"Now you see my fists? These fists are getting ready to [F] you up."
Those were the words of Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos, who is being charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter in the beating of Kelly Thomas on July 5. The account of what happened that evening, provided today by Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckus, was chilling.
The D.A. didn't mince words, arguing that the use of force on the homeless, mentally ill Thomas was unprovoked, unrelenting and brutal. A second officer, Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force.
One of the more damning details is that Thomas was familiar to Ramos, according to the D.A. If that's true, you'd think the officer would have been more understanding about Thomas' confusion and panic after he was ordered to sit with his hands on his knees and his legs outstretched.
Rackauckus said Ramos stood over Thomas in a menacing manner, put on a pair of latex gloves and made the physical threat. And then, said Rackauckus, the incident went from a routine contact "to an angry beating."
"Ramos then grabbed Kelly Thomas by behind his arm. Thomas pulled away. He stood up and started taking steps away from Officer Ramos. Then the baton came out. Kelly Thomas put his hands up palms out in a defensive position. Palms open."
Thomas was Tasered repeatedly, then struck in the face eight times with the Taser.
Rackauckus said that for the victim, there was "pain, panic, numerous pleas of 'I'm sorry, I can't breathe, help, Dad,' all to no avail." In fact, said the D.A., the beating continued, even after "there was no audible response from Kelly."
It's a safe bet that the officers will have a different version of the event, but the details Rackauckus laid out, based on an 11-week investigation that included the examination of several videos of the incident and accounts from 151 witnesses, were both savage and damning.
Whether or not Kelly Thomas was the guy who was reportedly trying to break into vehicles, as police suspected, he died because he had a mental illness. He died because the officers either didn't know how to handle such a situation, or they didn't care.
Kelly Thomas' father, Ron, who had been calling for criminal charges to be filed against the police, expressed his gratitude after the D.A.'s news conference.
Last month, Ron Thomas told me he wanted something else, too. He hoped his son's death would lead to a greater compassion for those with a mental illness and greater support for policies and programs that might save them from his son's fate.
-- Steve Lopez
Photo: Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas demonstrates how Fullerton police officer Manuel Ramos confronted Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic homeless man who died after the altercation with several police officers. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times