California’s mental health crisis and the death of Kelly Thomas

California’s mental health crisis

By Liz Lockhart

Whilst wading through reports of mental health incidents I came across an event in California which sounds alarm bells across the world and fills me with outrage.


Police officers in Fullerton, California, attended an incident after a call to them which stated that a man appeared to be breaking into cars at a bus station car park.  This happened on 5th July and may have gone virtually unnoticed if it weren’t for the efforts of Tony Bushala.

Mr. Bushala is a local estate developer who runs a website called ‘Friends of Fullerton’s Future’.  He was so outraged by what unfolded next that he has highlighted the incident through the medium of his website.

It is alleged that, after being called to an incident involving a man who appeared to be breaking into cars, six officers beat a 37-year-old homeless man with schizophrenia so severely that he fell into a coma.  The man was Kelly Thomas.  He died six days later after being taken off a life support machine.

Before looking further into what may have happened let us consider the plight of the mentally ill in California.  It is documented that one third of the homeless population in the US experiences severe mental illness.  Many homeless people lack access to mental health services.  This is a particular problem in California where it has been reported that a series of brutal cuts to mental health programmes have blighted the county and regional agencies.  These cuts have a massive impact on the lower-class populations as they cannot afford to get care through private means. 

It has been reported that the Fullerton police department are reluctant to give any information about the case and has refused to release statements and video footage from the officers involved.  These officers remain unnamed.  Friends of Fullerton’s Future has revealed the names of the police officers who they suspect were involved.

The facts of the case of Kelly Thomas which are known are that the police received a call about break-ins.  They found Mr. Thomas at the bus stop and approached him to question him about the complaint.  Mr. Thomas seemed agitated and scared and attempted to flee from the police.  There were many witnesses at the scene and several claim that the police tried to restrain Thomas but he struggled and they started to beat him with their flashlights.  They also used Tasers to subdue him.  It is alleged that Kelly Thomas’s face was so severely beaten that his father thought that his son had been attacked with a baseball bat.

It has also been reported that Mr. Thomas’s father, Ron Thomas has been offered $900,000 to settle the matter out of court.  Ron is an ex-law enforcement officer and is deeply troubled by the case.  He says that he is considering accepting the offer for the out of court settlement in order to create a fund in honour of his son.

Some accounts of this matter state that Kelly Thomas was a gentle, kind man others say that he was well known to the police.  It would not be helpful to speculate as to Mr. Thomas mental state when he was approached by the police.  His father claims that his son went on and off medication which is often the case for homeless people with mental health disorders.  Kelly could well have been agitated at the time and confused which may have made it difficult for him to understand the police commands.  What is certain is that he did not deserve to die.

This case highlights the need for better mental health services in California and for better police training.  If the officers had been trained in the handling of interactions with people with mental health disorders they, surely, should have been able to defuse the situation. 

See the original blog here be warned there are some disturbing images on this site.

Further help and reading

Blog about schizophrenia by Ian Birch

Misconceptions, crime and mental health disorders

Most people with schizophrenia are neither violent nor homicidal

Mental illness not cause of violent crime

New treatment for schizophrenia


Schizophrenia research offers hope of new treatments

Child sexual abuse may be important cause of schizophrenia

New schizophrenia book gives insight into mental health service

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