Kelly Thomas begged for his life, to no avail. The policemen in Fullerton, California just kept beating the homeless, mentally ill man, even as he cried out, "I'm sorry!"
Here's how one eyewitness described what happened: "I'm telling you, the homeless guy was just chillin', and then the cops came, two cop cars came, two cops, they tried getting him but he just ran off from them " and then they caught him, pound his face, pound his face, against the curb, was red, and they beat him up. " And two other more cops came, and tazed him six times. They beat him up, and then all the cops came and they hog tied him, and he was like, "Please God, please dad!"
Then Officer Manuel Ramos put on a pair of latex gloves and shook his fist at the terrified man, threatening to sexually abuse him -- even though Ramos knew that Kelly Thomas, homeless and schizophrenic, was a troubled young man who had trouble following instructions and who often hung out in downtown Fullerton.
Kelly Thomas died several days after that terrifying episode in July. Now Officer Ramos is charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. He faces fifteen years to life in prison if convicted. Another officer is charged with involuntary manslaughter and use of excessive force. He faces up to four years in prison.
Sadly, this tragedy is not an isolated event, although each story has its own narrative. Police brutality, defined as "the abuse of authority by the unwarranted infliction of excessive force by personnel involved in various aspects of law enforcement while in performance of their official duties" occurs all too frequently. From April 2009 to June 2010, almost 6,000 cases of police misconduct were reported nationally. Approximately 23 percent of these cases involved excessive force. Over 380 deaths resulted from such misconduct during that period.
Stories of police brutality, which can also involve verbal attacks and psychological intimidation, are wide-ranging. There were the four cops in New York City who shot Amadou Diallo in 1999 while searching for a rape suspect. They knocked on Diallo's door to question him and when he came to the door reaching inside his jacket for his wallet, the officers shot 19 times. This assault followed the torture of Abner Louima, an innocent man who was sodomized with a plumbing tool by New York police officers inside a precinct office.
But police brutality doesn't only happen in New York and California. In Johnsonville, TN, for example, a police cruiser camera recorded an event in which officers stripped an inebriated man, then handcuffed, tasered, and beat him as he lay naked in snow. One officer is heard saying, "If he even flinches, shoot his ass." The victim was jailed for five months awaiting trial, at which time the district attorney dismissed all charges against him.
Amnesty International says "police brutality and use of excessive force has been one of the central themes of [its] campaign on human rights violations in the USA." The watchdog organization has documented "systematic patterns of abuse across America, including police beatings, unjustified shootings and the use of dangerous restraint techniques to subdue suspects." It also reports evidence showing that "racial and ethnic minorities" were "disproportionately harmed by harassment, verbal and physical abuse, and false arrests."
Why do police officers so often get away with such brutality just because they wear a badge, especially when most of these cases are reviewed either internally or by local prosecutors to see if laws have been broken. Why are only a handful of officers criminally charged? And why doesn't the public know about such infractions unless a case goes to court?
In 1994 Congress passed the Police Accountability Act, later that year incorporated into the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which required the Attorney General to compile national data on excessive police force. But Congress has consistently failed to fund the Act. Further, the legislation doesn't require local police agencies to keep records or to submit data to the Justice Department. Nor does it criminalize police violence and excessive force as human rights violations. Additionally, authorities at all levels fail to honor the 1994 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Indeed, racial profiling has increased in the face of "national security" and immigration issues.
As President Obama likes to say, surely "we can do better than that." We must do better than that. We must put an end to police brutality in the name of Kelly Thomas, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, and all the other victims of police-perpetrated crimes whose names we don't know.
There is absolutely no excuse for turning the other way when police officers violate laws and human rights. We cannot condone such violence, abuse and bullying in any context, and least of all when people we should be able to trust turn out to be the bullies who get away with it because they can hide behind a badge.