The Nation's Pulse

Misplaced Compassion

Did misguided policies, ideologies contribute to death of mentally ill man?

By 8.11.11

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Early last month police in Fullerton, California, received a report that someone was breaking into cars at the city's transportation center. For years, the station has been a popular hub for the homeless. Unlike private business owners who have to worry about their bottom line, the public employees who run the transit center are more tolerant of street persons. The station is also a convenient place for burglars to ply their trade, since car owners often leave their vehicles unattended for hours at a time. Security guards are supposed to keep an eye on things, but this is unfeasible when on any given workday an average of 3,000 commuters travel through the hub.

Fullerton police discovered several homeless persons hanging round the bus station. Among them was 37-year-old Kelly Thomas. Thomas, who suffered from severe schizophrenia, had a string of arrests going back 17 years, during which time he'd been charged with everything from vandalism to assault with a deadly weapon. In 1995, he had pleaded guilty to hitting his grandfather in the head with a fireplace poker.

The pattern never varied. Thomas would be arrested and serve a brief jail sentence, after which he would be transferred to a treatment center. He would respond well to medication, at which point he would be released onto the streets. Or he would simply escape, since, as he told his father, he "hated" the treatment centers.

Inevitably Thomas, who was often heard saying he preferred the life of a drifter, would go off his medication. (He did not appear to have a similar aversion to illegal drugs, a probation report stated.)

This time when officers tried to search Thomas' backpack for weapons, drugs or stolen items, he made a run for it. Police easily caught up with him and, when he resisted, they allegedly zapped him with a stun gun. Perhaps as many as six times. It was reported that officers savagely beat and kicked Thomas until, at length, he slipped into a coma.

Five days later Kelly Thomas was dead.

MUCH OF THE nation was outraged by the news reports of his death. And rightly so. Editorials, blogs, and talk shows focused on the brutal actions of the six cops. There was virtually no criticism of Thomas's divorced parents for allowing their schizophrenic son to roam the streets. One newspaper reported that Thomas's father said he "just didn't have time" to be his son's full-time guardian. While his mother reportedly took out a five-year restraining order against him last December after he refused to leave her porch where he had been sleeping.

But if Kelly Thomas was too dangerous to live at home with his mother or father, why was it okay for him to roam the streets where he might harm innocent passersby? Another newspaper account noted that, "in the nearly two decades since his son descended into madness, Ron Thomas has worried every day that the schizophrenic 37-year-old would die of exposure or illness on the streets." Was there nothing Mr. Thomas could have done for his son except to "worry"? (Rather than opprobrium, Thomas père received an offer for nearly $1 million in compensation from city officials, which he turned down. No doubt, he intends to sue for much more.)

One woman, interviewed by a television crew at a candlelight vigil, choked back tears as she recalled how she used to wave to Thomas and bring him breakfast. That doubtless made her feel better, and may even have made Thomas feel better for a bit, but it hardly addressed the problem of the mentally ill languishing on our streets. Indeed, no one seemed to be addressing the problem, or even giving it much thought. Perhaps because for society to actually do something helpful like involuntarily commit a violent schizophrenic in order that he can be treated -- would be considered cruel and a violation of his civil rights.

In a statement, Fullerton police noted that officers receive training on how to deal with the mentally ill and the homeless. But police are not psychiatric nurses or orderlies. And unless a police officer has a specialized medical degree, how is he to know whether this or that transient is mentally ill? It is unlikely a veteran psychiatrist could make that kind of diagnosis under such circumstances. It seems to me the job of police should not be to "deal with the mentally ill," but to arrest criminals. To expect otherwise is like asking social workers to arrest carjackers.

There are some 200,000 homeless in America with untreated mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center. In the name of civil rights and compassion, society allows such persons to languish and die on the streets of our greatest cities. I fail to see the compassion and justice in that.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.