The Death of Kelly Thomas Was No Anomaly

Law enforcement historically has been asked to deal with many sociological issues that, quite frankly, we either have not been adequately trained for or don't have the appropriate resources to fix. Notably, one of the most difficult issues is the question of how to work with people who are homeless, many of whom have mental illness and/or drug abuse issues.

The beating and death of Kelly Thomas by Fullerton police officers caused outrage and backlash not just in Orange County where I live, but across the nation. Ron Thomas, Kelly's dad, ensured accountability by snapping this shocking photograph. The incident resulted in the criminal prosecution of several officers and a trial which is exposing the stigma associated with drug addiction, mental illness and the culture of law enforcement made worse by the drug war. You need look no further than the online comment sections of police magazines to see the callous language that surrounds the discussion of drug policies, drug addicts or even the death of Thomas.

Make no mistake: our law enforcement leaders assume that Kelly's death is an anomaly, that it was rogue cops operating outside of policy and procedure. By firing and prosecuting them, they believe the problem is solved. There is some truth to their belief, but by continuing to not critically analyze the failure of our national drug policy and how it impacts the mentally ill and our homeless population, we invite other incidents such as this -- this is simply a more extreme example of what happens on the streets every day. No one has asked could Kelly's death have been prevented. But I believe that if law enforcement leaders recognized that mental illness, drug addiction and the homeless are better served by public health resources than by the criminal justice system, Kelly needn't have died.

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has been working to remove barriers to drug reform by creating safe spaces for politicians and criminal justice professionals to admit to the many failures of the drug war. The list is long. Prohibition contributes to addiction, death, disease, and police malfeasance to name a few. But for me, raised in a law enforcement agency that emphasized service above self, the picture of Kelly Thomas and the words uttered by one of the suspects reflects poorly on a profession that has sworn "to protect and serve" their communities.

"Now you see these hands? They're going to f---k you up"

These words express the contempt felt not by all officers, but by enough that it contributes to a culture in law enforcement where those with drug addictions or mental illness are considered not worthy of compassion. This contempt is brought on by the frustrations of the job, a critical lack of training on mental health issues and a forty-year strategy by law enforcement leaders that refuses to consider a public health model to help manage America's drug problem.

Why is it that those who have the ability to change the culture of law enforcement instead keep the war -- not on drugs, but on people -- alive by opposing policies based on science, evidence based best practices, and compassion? How long before law enforcement sees that the faces Americans see when they look upon us are not the warriors we believe we are, but the faces of Kelly Thomas and the many others we have failed?