Why We Should Care About the Death of Kelly Thomas

by on May 11, 2012 · 15 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Health, Homelessness

At around 8:30 pm 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 Kelly Thomas? 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 years old, was charged with one felony count of second-degree murder and one felony count of involuntary manslaughter. Corporal Jay Cicinelli, 40 years old, 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 today – Thursday, May 10, 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.

Thank you,

Christine Schanes

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Saul May 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

We need to learn from this and raise mental health awareness within our community and be compassionate and understanding of these unfortunate people



Tad May 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm

How much you want to bet those cops will be acquitted? There is no justice for this kind of thing, the only result will be that cops will be more careful about surveillance cameras. They argue that they’d run out of options-there is NEVER a justifiable reason for a cop to hit someone in the face, NEVER.


Christine Schanes May 11, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Hi, Tad,

Thanks for your comment.

You know, I actually thought to myself as you write in your comment, “How much you want to bet those cops will be acquitted.”

It’s possible. However, so much of the facts are obvious on the videos that a conviction may happen.

Of course, we’ll see.

Excessive force, by definition, is never acceptable, especially from police officers.

What do you think about excessive force?



Christine Schanes May 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Hi, Saul,

Thanks for your comment.

I agree with you, ” [we] need to learn from this raise mental health awareness within our community and be compassionate and understanding of these unfortunate people.”

Your thoughts bear repeating.

And thank you so much for the YouTube link. Very helpful interview which I had not seen until you posted the link.

What do you think about OC DA Rackauckas’ thoughts given in the post? He was most cordial during our interview.

I look forward to your thoughts.


Lori Ann May 11, 2012 at 7:38 pm

My take on this is is there a lack of training of these Officers or is this plain ignorance at the fact that this man was nothing because he was Homeless? When Police involve themselves in such cruel, inconsiderate, and abusive situations they are making society question their reasons for being a officer of the law. We are told that Police are here to serve as well as protect us and with all do respect Police are failing the very vulnerable persons they need to protect. This man was a Human Being and the Police treated him worse than an animal. Heaven help us!


Christine Schanes May 11, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Hi, Lori Ann,

Thanks for your comment.

I appreciate your statements.

Interestingly, Kelly Thomas was known by the first officer. He was not a stranger to the police.

It is a true tragedy for Kelly Thomas and also for the officers involved. Kelly lost his life and, in a way, the officers have lost their lives as they knew them.

Please keep in touch,


dave May 11, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Police institutions has to start reevaluation about their officers before another case like Kelly Thomas case happened again in other state. To find all legal needs, you can visit http://lawdepot.org because has a lot review about legal documents


Christine Schanes May 12, 2012 at 11:23 am

Hi, Dave,

Thanks for your comment.

I went to the cite you suggested and read it with great interest. I was not aware of this cite, so thank you for informing me.

But I don’t think it actually bears on this case, does it? Correct me if I’m wrong.

I have to share something with you, however. Kelly Thomas died in July, 2011 and I did not write about it. Why? Because I have known so much violence against homeless people, by housed people, other homeless people and by the police, that I was not motivated to write about Kelly – especially since so many people were writing about his death.

I wish that I could convey my condolences to Kelly’s family. I feel very sad that he was killed. But, hopefully, I can help remind myself and others that we need to care about one another.

What do you think?



mike turco May 12, 2012 at 4:24 pm

I’m sorry that i saw the Kelly Thomas video. Saying daddy probably reflected abuse his father inflicted on him as a child. So sad.


Christine Schanes May 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Hi, Mike,

Thanks for your comment.

I’m sorry if you felt sorry about seeing the Kelly Thomas video. Seeing someone beaten is tough. There is no doubt about that.

Regarding whether Kelly’s dad abused him as a child is certainly one interpretation of his cries.

Having spoken to the OC DA Anthony Rackauckas for this article, I believe that he believes that Kelly was calling out to his dad for help. I do put a lot of stock in what Rackauckas feels because he undoubtedly spend time with the family of the victim.

But, I appreciate your awareness of the possibility of child abuse. Without awareness, we don’t have a chance to change things.



tricia May 17, 2012 at 10:40 am

Thanks for the article Christine.But in my experience, the homeless do not rely on the police for anything.You do not make yourself known as homeless if you can.Stay under the radar…..try and clean up and do whatever you can to get out of your situation.They will ticketed you for anything ( at least in East County) and if you can’t pay the fines, you do community service, which of course isn’t a death sentence.But my point is the homeless that I know,do not want any interaction from the police.You do not sleep anywhere where they might check.If you have an animal with you, you risk the chance that they will take them away.The police are not friends of the homeless, though I am sure there are a few exceptions.
My experience…….I stayed under the radar.
I would not be surprised to hear the cops get off…..we tend to marginalize those who don’t look or act like us.Their lives are expendable.
Thank you.


Christine Schanes May 17, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Hi, Tricia,

Thanks for your comment.

It’s great to hear from you again.

Of course, I agree with you when you write that homeless people do their best to stay away from the police

However, I don’t think that this should be necessary. The police should be protecting homeless people as well as housed people. The work of the police should not depend upon the economic standing of the victim.

I just think that it’s important for us to do all we can to get the police to do this.

B:y raising our own awareness and increasing our own compassion, we can change things – I’m convinced of this.

I appreciate your thoughts, Tricia.



Susie May 11, 2013 at 4:10 am

I do remember this. So very Sad. A sad state of affairs that a lot of people do not trust Law enforcement. The power to carry a gun & badge is a license to kill it seems
especially in Ca. They had to know they were hurting him. Jerks.
Cudos to the OC DA for bringing charges and not sweeping it under the pavement . I hope they get what they deserve.


Christine Schanes May 11, 2013 at 7:13 am

Hi, Susie,

Thanks for your comment.

In this day and age of heightened awareness about the negative implications of carrying a gun, I believe it is helpful to remember that all citizens, housed and unhoused, can be victims of the misuse of guns.

Thank you for remembering Kelly Thomas and for bringing his case into the current discussion.

Q: Do you carry a gun or know anyone who does? If so, could you share the purpose of carrying a gun?

Thank you,


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