Police abuse is an all-too-common reality with deadly consequences. The story of Kelly Thomas is an unfortunate illustration of what happens when police go too far.
Kelly Thomas was a 37-year-old man. He was schizophrenic and homeless, living on the streets of Fullerton, California. He probably would have stayed that way if he hadn’t died after a beating by six Fullerton police officers in July of 2011.
Police were called to the area near a bus depot on the night of July 5 to investigate a reported car break-in. A nearby security camera recorded as two officers contacted Thomas, who was in the area, and questioned him for a few minutes before searching his backpack. Thomas was sassy and back-talked the officers, but remained peaceful. After a seated Thomas wouldn’t completely comply with Officer Manuel Ramos’ order to put his hands on his knees, Ramos eventually said “Now you see my fists? They’re getting ready to f— you up,” while he snapped on rubber gloves.
The situation escalated quickly after Ramos’ threat. Thomas stood up to get away from him, and was clubbed and taken down by both officers. He struggled on the ground while the officers had him pinned. Four more officers joined in, helping to pin Thomas down while also Tasing him and hitting him all over his body and face. Thomas can be heard pleading for help.
The incident lasted about 10 minutes from the first baton swing until all the officers had piled off of Thomas. It ended with Thomas being picked out of a pool of his own blood by medics and transported the hospital, where he was in a coma and died five days later from chest compression that blocked his breathing, among other significant head and body trauma.
Within a few months of the incident protests and public outcry over the death led the Orange County district attorney to charge Ramos with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Former-Cpl. Jay Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and using excessive force, and Former-Officer Joseph Wolfe with manslaughter. All three men were released from city employment.
Ramos and Cicinelli were acquitted by a jury on January 13, 2014. Charges were dropped against Wolfe following the verdict.
Between the beating and the acquittal, multiple rallies and protests were held, three Fullerton city councilmembers were recalled from their positions by citizen initiatives, and the police chief at the time of the beating, Michael Sellers, retired. The FBI is still investigating whether Thomas’ civil rights were violated, and thus worthy of federal charges.
Civil cases can be easier to win than criminal cases. Defendants in criminal cases must be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury. There must be no doubt about their guilt in order to convict them. In civil cases, a preponderance of evidence (enough evidence to show guilt is more likely than innocence) can often lead to a win for the complainant.
Thomas’ dad, Ron Thomas, filed a civil lawsuit against the city, two police chiefs, and the six officers involved in the beating. Ron’s ex-wife settled a separate lawsuit with the city for $1 million.
Ron Thomas’ civil suit has several key differences that set it apart from the criminal trial against the officers. While the criminal trial pitted the government as a complainant (implemented by the district attorney) against the defendant former-officers, the civil trial will feature Ron Thomas as the complainant prosecuting the city, police chiefs and officers as defendants. The criminal trial could have produced jail time and fines for the ex-officers, but the civil trial can only yield monetary payment and/or “equitable relief,” meaning that the court would order the defendants to do or not do something – no jail time.
During their criminal trial Ramos and Cicinelli never took the stand, invoking their Fifth Amendment Rights against self-incrimination. That Right is applicable in criminal courts, but not in civil courts. The officers must testify in civil court if called to the stand by Ron’s lawyer. Hearing the officers answer questions about the beating death in their own words could have a profound impact on the verdict.
Police beatings like Thomas’ are no new phenomenon. They’ve always happened, but rarely get caught on video or noticed by a large audience. Wider access to filming equipment has led to an increase in awareness of them. Bystanders in Fullerton that night captured parts of the Thomas beating on their cell phones. A bus camera captured bystander’s reactions to it.
The Seattle Police Department came under scrutiny in 2011 when King County prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against ex-Officer Ian Birk after he shot and killed a homeless man on a Seattle sidewalk after a remarkably short exchange. The Department of Justice launched an investigation on SPD shortly thereafter, finding that “SPD has engaged in a pattern or practice of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law,” and raised concerns that their practices are discriminatory. Birk was not tried for federal civil rights violations.
Civilians and police both must learn from incidents like the Thomas beating and others. The public must hold law enforcement accountable to what the people want it to be, instead of tolerating rampant abuse of power. And officers must listen to those voices and be held accountable for their crimes, on-duty and off-duty, like everybody else.
Have your or a loved one’s Constitutional rights been violated by the police? You have many questions about what to do next, so contact us at 206-285-1743 for answers and free resources to help your case or visit our contact form.