That’s why the defense said, over and over again at trial, that these policemen were, their lawyer said in court, "peace officers ... doing what they were trained to do." And perhaps that is the most frightening component of all of this—one that transforms this local tragedy into a national question. By this verdict jurors told us they believe these officers were merely following their training. So how many police officers in America today are out on patrol and similarly untrained (or emotionally ill-equipped) to handle the mentally ill? How many other police forces have trained their officers to use their weapons in this fashion against homeless people screaming for help?
Immediately after the verdict, the "dad" whose son cried out for help that night was predictably shaken by the acquittals. "I just don't get it," said Ron Thomas. He doesn't but I do. The law protects the police more than it protects the mentally ill in America. If you need more proof then consider the abuse and neglect the mentally ill endure in the nation's prisons all over the country. So why should we have expected jurors in this case to have honored Thomas' legacy by holding responsible the men who so savagely beat him? We've dehumanized the poor, and the homeless, and the mentally ill, and this is what we get.
You know what else is sad about all this? Knowing, as anyone who follows the prison beat knows, that had Thomas survived the encounter and been arrested and convicted, he likely would have ended up being mistreated and abused in jail or prison on account of his schizophrenia. There are a thousand Kelly Thomases in our nation's prisons today, wallowing in horrific conditions because their jailors treat them and their illnesses with the contempt we saw unleashed against Thomas. It's an ongoing American tragedy.
I followed this case but never wrote about it because I assumed—wrongly it turns out—that Orange County jurors would convict. But I should have known better. The results of these cases often don't turn upon the strength of the facts or upon the evidence introduced at trial. They often turn instead upon what a group of people, a group of jurors, think is right and wrong. Jurors obviously believe they made the right choice. But because of the existence of that video, and what it shows us with our own eyes, the rest of us are more free than usual to criticize that choice. And I choose to do so. What has happened here— both on that night in July 2011 and again today—is wrong. Painfully, manifestly, cruelly wrong. It is a travesty upon justice.
And if the courts and jurors of California are unwilling to see it that way, I hope the Justice Department now investigates the case as a matter of a potential violation of federal civil rights. Indeed, the FBI already has indicated it is going to take another look at this case. Kelly Thomas, and his dad, deserve at least that much. If this shameful incident is to have any meaning, if any good is to come out of such a bad thing, the story can't end here like this.