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Why We Should Care About the Death of Kelly Thomas

What happened in that bus depot parking lot? Can we learn anything from the death of KellyThomas? Why should we care about the death of one homeless person?
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At around 8:30 p.m. the evening of July 5, 2011, Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old, mentally ill homeless man, was in the parking lot of the Fullerton bus depot when he was approached by police officers. Approximately 33 minutes later, Kelly was unconscious and taken to the hospital where five days later he was pronounced dead.

What happened in that bus depot parking lot? Can we learn anything from the death of KellyThomas? Why should we care about the death of one homeless person?

We know a great many details of the last minutes of Kelly's conscious life because they were captured on video tapes, including the following video available through YouTube:

On September 21, 2011, Orange County District Attorney Anthony Rackauckas held a press conference and announced that he had brought criminal charges against two of the six Fullerton police officers involved in that meeting with Kelly. Officer Manuel Ramos, 38, was charged with one felony count of second-degree murder and one felony count of involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli, 40, was charged with one felony count of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of use of excessive force. The officers face maximum sentences in state prison of 15 years to life and 4 years, respectively.

During the press conference, Rackauckas said, "The biggest shame about this case is the fact that it could have been avoided. This never had to happen, and it never should have happened." He acknowledged that while in Orange County "we generally trust our law enforcement...[w]e must do everything we can to make sure we protect that trust, including prosecuting police officers if they violate the law."

On May 9, 2012, the preliminary hearing was concluded in this matter and the case against Ramos and Cicinelli was bound over for trial. Arraignment for both defendants was set for May 22.

Earlier, I conducted a phone interview with Rackauckas, a portion of which follows:

Question: Why did you, rather than a member of your staff, conduct the preliminary hearing in the Kelly Thomas case?

Rackauckas: This is a terribly important issue that we have here... Everyone is a stakeholder in it. When did the police act lawfully and when did they cross the line -- this has to be clear. I want it to be very clear to police officers. [The case of Kelly Thomas] is far from the line. On the other hand, it is important for people to know that we have a good police force...I think it's important to convey this message in the clearest way possible.

Question: How do you feel about homeless people?

Rackauckas: I have to say, looking at someone in Kelly Thomas' situation, there is a lot of vulnerability living on the street. Kelly Thomas was shirtless and he had a backpack that was not stolen, it had been discarded.

I don't want to see that, because of someone's vulnerability, that that person gets mistreated. My concern is that the law is followed and is followed by the police in a professional way and does not involve bullying someone. The police have a duty above that.

Question: Are you a compassionate person?

Rackauckas: Sure, I'm a compassionate person. I don't like to see people be hungry.

It's hard to get through [the video tape of Kelly Thomas' interaction with the police]. When I hear Kelly Thomas saying, 'I'm sorry," 'I can't breath,' 'Dad' and later in the tape, 'Daddy,' it's hard to hear.

It's normal to be empathetic. If you don't feel that way, there's something missing.

Question: What can we learn from this case?

Rackauckas: The police force is there to protect and serve and, in general, that's what they do. And they do it at the highest level. When they don't, they are subject to the law, just like everyone else.

Question: In your press conference on September 21, 2011, you said that this case never had to happen.

Rackauckas: That's the absolute truth. This kind of thing should not have happened. There certainly was too much force. We cannot tolerate the police being bullies. It's just not their job.

Every day in the United States, there are over 600,000 men, women and children who are homeless. They are vulnerable and rely upon the police as much as housed people do for protection and safety. Perhaps the case of Kelly Thomas will help all of us remember this.

I look forward to your comments.