In the past few weeks, we have seen not only the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, by the NYPD, but also two publicized cases of young, unarmed African-American men who were gunned down by the police, one on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, another on the streets of South L.A.
The facts may never be fully known in those cases, since the victims tragically are not around to testify. And the cases clearly differ in many ways. For one, unlike Michael Brown, who was shot dead in Ferguson, Ezell Ford, who was killed in South L.A., suffered from severe mental illness, perhaps schizophrenia, according to some reports. Secondly, unlike the Ferguson police department, the LAPD has done a much better job since the 1992 riots at outreach to the black community in South L.A.
Still, there are similarities to the two recent cases. When the police confronted the two young African-American men, it appears that the police were under the impression that both Brown and Ford had done little other than walk down the street. The Ferguson police chief told CNN that Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, did not know at the time of the shooting that Brown had allegedly robbed a convenience store.
What if Michael Brown and Ezell Ford had been white?
This is not merely a rhetorical question. It is one that I can answer.
That was me in 1999.
In late January of that year, a time when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was in the midst of my second psychotic break, I trampled at two in the morning along the streets of Glendale, California, where my girlfriend Barbara lived. I feared that I might be assassinated, so I darted over to the police department to seek help.
As I have written before in a piece titled "Standing Up for the Late Kelly Thomas, Homeless Schizophrenic," I was probably hoping for a James Dean moment from Rebel Without a Cause, where the police would sit me down in a room, talk to me, give me perhaps a sandwich and milk, and straighten me out until I was well enough to drive home to Venice, where I lived at the time.
Unfortunately, I was told by the policewoman at the front desk that there was no one to talk to me and no place for me to stay except a jail cell. She then told me that I could make one phone call, the very line that is often uttered to criminals.
Needless to say, I declined the phone call and the jail cell and scurried out of the police department.
But I was so terrified that I was going to be assassinated that I walked down the street, not the sidewalk, because the street had better illumination at two in the morning. I was afraid that someone might be lurking in a doorway or an alley and might kill me.
As I walked down the street, a policeman in a squad car that was driving slowly behind me blared out on a loudspeaker, "Get out of the street!"
Startled, I jumped onto the sidewalk. At that point, I might have been more afraid of the police than I was of any killer loitering in the neighborhood.
What if I had been African-American? What would have happened to me?
Is it possible that the police would have been more aggressive with me? Is it possible that they would have even arrested me?
And what if I had fled from the police, simply because I was scared?
I have read that over the last 15 years the LAPD has instituted a new policy in which it "deploys" a team of social workers who are supposed to join police officers when a suspect on the street suffers from mental illness. Yet Ezell Ford, who was mentally ill, was still shot dead.
It is possible that the police did not know at the time of the encounter with Ford that he was mentally ill, though he was well-known in the neighborhood for his illness; and it is possible that Ford may have brandished a knife and charged the police, though witnesses have provided conflicting reports.
But as I wrote at the time of the tragic death of Miriam Carey, who was shot dead last year by the Capitol Police and the Secret Service after leading them on a car chase through the streets of Washington, D.C., couldn't the police have Tasered Ford in the leg? Or the arm?
Then they could have put him on a 72-hour involuntary hold in the psych ward on the grounds that he was a possible threat to himself or others. I was put on such a hold, though it was not the police who did so. It was a doctor at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute.
Many have suggested that Michael Brown, who did not suffer from mental illness, should also have been Tasered if he approached Officer Darren Wilson in a manner that led Wilson to have "reasonable fear." I agree.
Had Wilson Tasered him, perhaps in the leg or the arm, Brown would likely be alive today.
Of course, some unarmed white people have been killed by the police too.
Not unlike me on that night in January 1999, Kelly Thomas, a white man who suffered from schizophrenia, was wandering the streets of Orange County in 2011 when he was beaten to death by the police.
Lest we think that Tasers are completely harmless, Kelly Thomas was Tasered multiple times and allegedly smashed in the head with fists, knees and the Taser before he lost consciousness and died. The officers who were put on trial in the case were acquitted of all the major charges, including second-degree murder, involuntary manslaughter and excessive force.
All of which tells me that we have to go beyond paying lip service to systemic problems in our criminal justice system. As I have written many times before, including in the wake of the verdict in the Kelly Thomas case, we need to make truly substantive police reforms across the country to curb the use of excessive force. We need much more humane tactics in dealing not only with unarmed, young men, particularly those of color; we also need much more humane tactics in dealing with the mentally ill.