July 10, 2020 8:28AM

Lessons from the Death of Kelly Thomas

Nine years ago today, Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill man living on the streets of Fullerton, California died from injuries resulting from a beating by local police five days earlier. The scandal of Thomas’ death highlighted problems with the way police interact with people experiencing homelessness, but despite hopes for systemic reforms and some positive changes, California continues to rely on law enforcement as a solution to the state’s large and growing homelessness problem.

On July 5, 2011, police responded to a call from a local bar, whose manager reported car break‐​ins or vandalism across the street. (Subsequently, an investigation suggested that this initial report was untrue; the bar manager was instead concerned that Thomas was loitering in the bar’s parking lot.) Police accosted Thomas and at some point the interaction turned violent. Police initially reported that Thomas was uncooperative and violent, and that several police officers were injured in the confrontation. However, witnesses, bolstered by videos, showed that the police were actually the aggressors, repeatedly tasering Thomas and beating him with batons and other weapons, even after he was restrained, and police retracted their initial claims of injuries.

After the beating, police officers were allowed to watch video of the incident before writing their reports, and internal information was restricted or withheld, leading to allegations of a cover‐​up. Moreover, evidence that one of the officers involved had previously been reprimanded for misconduct was kept from the public. Another officer was simultaneously collecting disability pay from the Los Angeles Police Department, which had determined him medically unfit for service. Three of the officers were charged with involuntary manslaughter, second‐​degree murder, and excessive use of force. After two of the officers were acquitted, charges against the third were dropped.

The Fullerton police’s killing of Mr. Thomas sparked a movement for reform in the Fullerton city government: three city council members lost recall elections, and the police chief went on leave and eventually resigned. Fullerton also shifted toward using non‐​police professionals to deal with homelessness and mental illness. Today, the Fullerton Police Department maintains a team of four officers working with nonprofit and medical partners to address the type of situations that resulted in Thomas’ death. At a time when many California communities are debating “defunding the police,” Fullerton offers an example of one way this might work in practice.

However, most California cities still rely on law‐​enforcement to deal with their homeless populations. For example, many cities have laws against sitting, laying down, own sleeping in public places. A survey of people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco found that 45 percent of people living on the street were approached by police on a monthly basis. 85 percent reported having been cited by the police, often for quality of life laws like those listed above.. Many of these laws exist as little more than a pretense for clearing people experiencing homelessness out of areas in response to complaints, much like in Mr. Thomas’ case.

Defenders of anti‐​homeless laws often suggest that people experiencing homelessness can access services more easily when in the criminal justice system, but this is not the case in reality. Setting aside the moral issue of incarcerating people ostensibly “for their own good,” incarceration clearly does not help people rise out of poverty: 81 percent of respondents to the San Francisco survey reported not having been offered any services upon release.

No doubt California has a crisis of homelessness. More than half of all the unhoused homeless in the United States reside in California. Many of the people experiencing homelessness are suffering from substance abuse and/​or mental illness, but many others have been driven to the streets by their state’s lack of affordable housing.

Rather than criminalizing homelessness, and resorting to the type of police use of force that can quickly escalate and, all too often, falls heaviest on people of color, California should remove regulatory barriers that make it difficult to provide services to the homeless. And, the state needs to deregulate the housing market in order to build more — and more affordable — housing.