I’m haunted by the Kelly Thomas case.
For those not familiar with it—and you may be familiar, for reasons I shall discuss shortly—Kelly Thomas was severely beaten by Fullerton police officers at a bus stop in July. Witnesses, including passengers on a bus pulling into the lot, thought he had been killed on the scene, but it actually took five days for him to die. His injuries were so severe that his father didn’t recognise him at first when he arrived in the hospital. He was homeless, and had a history of schizophrenia, and both of these things were clearly factors in the incident.
Cases like this take place across the United States. Not necessarily exactly like this; police do not show up at bus stops and beat unarmed homeless men to death. But they do shoot people with mental illness, routinely, and sometimes in questionable circumstances. Just this weekend, the case I wrote about here recently ended, as many predicted it would, when the search teams shot the suspect. At the press conference, the sheriff made it evident that he was confident it was a legally justified shooting, and it will probably be ruled as such, just as so many other police shootings of mentally ill people are.
You usually don’t hear about cases like this, either. They fade quietly into the background. A local paper picks them up and covers them with a handful of articles. Sometimes family members are quoted expressing a desire for better mental health services. A police representative may express regret for how things turned out. And then the case just disappears, vanishes from the radar to be replaced by something else.
In New Hampshire, four mentally ill suspects have been shot to death by police this year. In June, police officers in Washington, D.C. shot and killed a suspect believed to be mentally ill. Another man in Florida in May. A suspect in Oregon was shot and killed in January. A ‘mild mannered’ man with schizophrenia was shot to death in California earlier this year. Police officers in Washington killed a man after he opened fire on them. This is just the first page of Google results for ‘mentally ill shot by police.’
Most of these cases resonated briefly in their own communities and then were forgotten. The only reason the Aaron Bassler case here attracted attention was because of the 36 day manhunt, and the unusual nature of such violent events for a small town. It astounded me when people started talking about it and hadn’t heard about it from me, when it hit the front page of the New York Times and media trucks started showing up in Fort Bragg to cover it. What didn’t astound me was the nature of the coverage, which had parallels with coverage in so many other cases. Tragic, but necessary.
Tragic, but necessary. What these cases highlight is an urgent need for reform in the United States, for comprehensive policies on the handling of mentally ill suspects. Many police forces have little to no training in how to approach people with mental illness, particularly when they are experiencing symptoms of severe illness. Given the regrettable state of mental health services in the United States, this is a serious problem, because growing numbers of people with mental illness have difficulty accessing care. Growing numbers of mentally ill people are homeless. Many of those people are also veterans, some with distinguished service records.
Studies on mental illness and violence show that, generally speaking, people with mental illness are far more at risk of experiencing violence. When we do commit acts of violence, the biggest factors are usually lack of access to unstigmatised care, making it difficult for people to seek care and adhere to treatment, and the use of drugs. In other words, when mentally ill people are violent, it is usually the result of extenuating social circumstances which could have been avoided with more effective and complete mental health care.
But back to Kelly Thomas for a moment, because his case is important. It could have slipped by, a blip on the radar. I took note of it when it occurred because I follow and actively seek out this information, but I didn’t expect anything to come of it. That changed because of the actions of one man, who was unsettled by the case, and decided that there was something about it he didn’t like. Tony Bushala, one of the people behind Friends for Fullerton’s Future, started writing about it. And he refused to shut up. He kept writing and writing and writing. He kept asking why the media wasn’t covering the case. He kept digging up information and making it available to members of the public.
Mr. Bushala isn’t a journalist. He’s not an activist. He’s not a mental health advocate. He’s concerned about his community, and he decided this case was important, and he started covering it. Our politics, I suspect, are pretty different, but the bottom line is that he accomplished something very important. By talking about an issue, and by refusing to shut up, he forced people to pay attention. The media started picking up the story of Kelly Thomas, it appeared in international publications, and nearly a month after the shooting, some traction finally started to happen in the case. It seemed like justice for Kelly Thomas might just be possible.
Two of the six officers involved in the beating have been charged. There were street marches and protests. This is in a very conservative part of California, a typically pro-law enforcement region, and one man’s campaign stirred up the entire community, roused people into action. Caused people to put their support behind the cause, to push for justice for Kelly Thomas. To demand that the matter be taken to court.
‘We are many, they are few,’ runs a line from The Sparrow. It’s a line I think about a lot in cases like this, because the powerbrokers are few, and control access to justice, to the media, to information. Until people like Tony Bushala short-circuit the carefully constructed system. They raise awareness about these issues and they do more than that: They ask people to do something. The expressions of rage and frustration in Fullerton as a result of Bushala’s work caused a sea change to occur. Kelly Thomas may have been devalued in life, but in death, his name and face were emblazoned on headlines across the world, and highlighted a serious and growing problem in the United States.
California is facing severe cuts to mental health services that make it extremely difficult to access care. People like Kelly Thomas fall through the cracks because there is not enough funding to follow up on them, to check on them, to figure out how to reach them effectively. People who actively seek mental health services in California struggle to get care. Counties are slashing funding to ‘voluntary mental health services,’ as they are known. Meanwhile, several counties have implemented Laura’s law, which mandates outpatient treatment for people with severe mental illness. Mendocino County is considering implementing the law in the wake of the Aaron Bassler case; Supervisor Kendall Smith told me that the funding to do so may be available through AB 109, the California legislation that is dumping scores of prisoners on regional jails.
Because mental illness is criminalised, not just in California, but in the United States. The prison system is one of the largest providers of mental health services and the quality of those services is woefully inadequate. To be mentally ill can, in some cases, result in being treated like a criminal. Even if you are doing nothing other than sitting at a bus station, watching the world go by. To have a serious mental health condition is to run the constant risk that you may someday be one of the local headlines, that ‘tragic, but necessary’ news story that will include a few pullquotes from your family and friends, if you’re lucky.
Violence against people with mental illness from police officers is a documented issue. And it’s a difficult one to address, because the funds for training are rapidly dissipating, which makes it extremely hard to access police forces to discuss the design and implementation of programmes designed to save the lives of mentally ill suspects. Special training in mental health is not ‘handling with kid gloves,’ as people dismissively refer to it. It is common sense, common sense that would save lives. If police officers are going to be charged with providing mental health services, they need to be provided with training so they can do it right.
And the system as a whole needs to be reformed because it is patently ridiculous to be relying on police forces to provide mental health care. Police officers are not therapists, not mental health professionals, not nurses or counselors or aides or psychiatrists. They are police officers. Reforms to the mental health system need to involve not mandatory medication and outpatient therapy programmes for people with severe mental illness, but the ready availability of voluntary mental health services with minimal stigma to all people who want assistance. To make it easier for people to seek and receive the treatment they need before something terrible happens.
I’m haunted by the Kelly Thomas case because it was an instance of casual brutality that could have quietly slipped past without leaving a wake, but it didn’t. And it didn’t because one person thought the issue was important enough to take up as a cause. The case illustrated the power of citizen journalism, of activism, of taking a matter to the streets, the Internet, the op-ed pages, and refusing to shut up until justice was done. This was a case that bridged political divides to unite people over a common cause, and it was because one person was willing to give the rock a nudge downhill.
That one person could be you. It could be anyone. Anyone with an interest in their community, anyone who follows the news and wants to start talking about it, questioning the news, digging deeper, engaging with the issues. Anyone who willing to keep dogging at a case until some traction occurs, to keep recruiting people to a cause, to refuse to shut up.