On July 5, 2011, a disheveled Orange County, California man who suffered from schizophrenia was severely beaten after failing to comply with local police. That man, Kelly Thomas, later died due to his injuries. Charges were then brought against the main officers involved in the beating by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. However, despite evidence of excessive force, Officer Manuel Ramos, Corporal Jay Cicinelli and Officer Joseph Wolfe were all found not guilty of committing any crime (Wolfe was actually never put through trial). As a result, anger in the surrounding communities over the Kelly Thomas case now urges a review of the treatment and handling of the mentally challenged population by law enforcement officials.
12 years ago, California approved a legislation known as Laura’s Law. This law, initially brought forth by families of the mentally ill, emphasizes court-ordered treatment for the afflicted. However, it was left up to each county to decide how their individual programs would be handled. In a poor showing, only one county in the entire state of California (which has 58 counties in all) has completely invoked Laura’s Law.
However, with the outcome of the Kelly Thomas case, many California counties are now doing a review of the way treatment is exercised, concerning their mentally challenged population. Los Angeles and Orange Counties are among the areas poising for change. Even places in Northern California are considering stricter adherence to Laura’s Law, such as San Francisco. Yolo County has already begun implementations.
No doubt, these moves closely follow the February protests, following the outcome of the Kelly Thomas trials. Many took to the streets of Los Angeles, angry over the acquittal of Officer Manuel Ramos, who was considered to be the main “violator” in the beating of Thomas. Dubbed “5000 Angelenos For Kelly Thomas,” the protesters held signs that read: “I AM THE VOICE OF [THOMAS]” and “ACCOUNTABILITY FOR MURDER.”
Now that Laura’s Law is back on the table, there are clearly two sides emerging on the issue of court-mandated options for the mentally ill. On one side you have people like Jennifer Hoff, who’s son was forced out of a program for the mentally ill when he turned 18. Unable to get the courts to force him back into treatment, Matthew Hoff ended up committing a bank robbery and is now serving a 15-year sentence. Jennifer Hoff compared her experience to that of a parent watching their child drown, saying “[The families] have no legal authority to do anything.”
On the other side of the argument are those who feel the judicial system does not have the right to decide the fate of the mentally challenged. Advocate Charmaine Asher, who is a victim of depression says: “…I can empathize with [family members of the mentally ill], but force is just not the solution…” Disability Rights California, also an advocate for the mentally afflicted, is actually preparing to sue Orange County if it enforces Laura’s Law.
Although, money was initially cited as major roadblock for implementing Laura’s Law in places such as Orange County, it was later decreed acceptable to utilize funds from the Mental Health Services Act to make the legislation applicable. Upon the heels of the Kelly Thomas case, it would appear that the mentally challenged population of California faces a different sort of treatment, resulting from a major review that urges new practices of state and local law enforcement.
By Josh Taub