Learning from the Kelly Thomas case

The death of homeless, schizophrenic Kelly Thomas after a beating by two Fullerton police officers was shocking. Anyone who has seen the grainy but graphic 33-minute video of the incident must acknowledge that it is hard to square with the jury's conclusion that the two officers were not guilty of second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter or even of using excessive force.

The verdict is a reminder of how difficult it is to convict police officers in such cases, because the law explicitly allows them to use deadly force to protect themselves, if necessary, in the line of duty. What's more, even the most horrific video tells only part of the story, and the jury, which had the final say, ultimately concluded after watching it and listening to testimony and sifting through evidence that the officers should go free.

But no one should conclude from the acquittal that nothing went wrong that night in Fullerton, or that the high legal bar for convicting police officers means that violence is an acceptable way for police to handle a mentally ill suspect.

Attorneys for Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli said the lawmen were just doing their jobs. "They did what they were trained to do," attorney John Barnett told The Times.

And that's the problem. Responsibility for dealing with the mentally ill often falls to the officers who patrol the streets, and they need better training and support to do so safely. Police routinely confront men and women who are erratic or irrational, and they are forced make split-second decisions on whether these individuals pose a deadly risk. Yet too few officers across the country receive adequate training or clear protocols on how to defuse, rather than escalate, dangerous confrontations with the mentally ill.

Some states offer specialized training, and some agencies have enacted their own protocols. Following a 1999 incident in which a Los Angeles police officer shot and killed a mentally ill woman after she lunged at him with a screwdriver, the LAPD required officers to complete eight hours of training. Plainclothes police and social workers are deployed when an officer encounters someone who may suffer from mental illness.

In Orange County, only a handful of officers were trained to deal with the mentally ill before the Kelly Thomas incident. California needs a broad, statewide revamping of training and standards for such situations, including state legislation to force sluggish police departments to catch up. Those standards should be worked out in cooperation with medical professionals.

The broader problem is the lack of a comprehensive, treatment-based response to mental illness and the default decision to treat the symptoms and side effects — drug abuse, erratic behavior or homelessness — as entry points into the criminal justice system instead of the healthcare system. Until that changes, confrontations between police and the mentally ill will continue. Thomas' death was a terrible mistake. It would be tragedy if the Fullerton Police Department and other agencies did not learn from it.

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