Surveillance video may be the key to holding police accountable in the beating death of an unarmed suspect who apparently complied with all orders until an officer threatened him. It is a stark reminder of the role such video can play in legal proceedings.
The case involves Fullerton, Calif., officers accused in the July 2011 death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man. Thomas allegedly was beat mercilessly by the officers and later died from the injuries.
A screen shot from the video of police beating Kelly Thomas. The video, shot from a bus depot surveillance camera, may have helped sustain charges against two of the six officers involved. It was shown for the first time May 7 during a hearing in the cases of Officer Manuel Ramos, who is charged with second-degree murder, and of Cpl. Jay Cicinelli, who is charged with manslaughter, according to local news reports. The other four officers have not been charged; they were placed on administrative leave.
VIDEO IS VIRAL
The video—which can now be seen on YouTube—shows Thomas at first talking with police, who stand a few feet away from the suspect, and Thomas complies with requests that he sit. Thomas is not seen to attack or make threatening gestures toward the police. At 15:25 minutes into the video—even though Thomas appears to be complying with all orders—Ramos shows his fists to Thomas and the officer is heard threatening the homeless man with them, and it is Ramos who puts his hands on the sitting suspect.
The beating begins when Thomas attempts to walk away after Ramos makes his threats. The video shows Thomas being hit with a truncheon and being beaten as he lay on the ground. Audible to the viewer are the schizophrenic man’s pleas of “I’m sorry” and for the officers to stop, his screams from being Tased (up to four times), his calls for his father’s help and finally his moans. Thomas eventually went silent; he lapsed into a coma. Paramedics tried to revive him but he died five days later.
The video makes for uncomfortable viewing. It shows that as officers shot Thomas with the Taser, they ordered him to lie on his stomach even though he was being electrocuted and screaming in pain at the time. At 20:38 in the video, an officer is heard saying, “There’s blood everywhere.” At 25:09 an officer says, “We ran out of options so I got the end of my Taser and I probably ... I just start smashing his face to hell.” At 28:05 an officer laughs about being confused over who is taking Thomas to the hospital. After Thomas is removed on a stretcher a large puddle of blood is visible.
Lawyers for the officers sought to have the charges dismissed, claiming paramedics were to blame for Thomas’ death, news reports say. However, on May 10, Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm ordered Ramos and Cicinelli to stand trial on the charges. The powerful video may not be the only evidence that compelled Schwarm to order the trial to proceed, but it likely had some impact.
News reports says some in the community of Fullerton are outraged by the conduct of the officers involved; and there have been calls for the termination of the officers not charged.
Fullerton City Councilman Bruce Whitaker has alleged a cover-up of the beating of Thomas within the police department and believes the six officers involved falsified their reports. Initial reports said Thomas had been very combative with officers and that two officers suffered broken bones; yet the video shows the officers standing around Thomas as paramedics worked on him; and news reports say the police department has confirmed that no officers suffered broken bones, and that no one other than Thomas had any significant injuries.
The case reminds us that until the video was introduced as evidence, information on what occurred in Fullerton on July 5 depended on the police. It may be little consolation to the family of the man, but if officers are found guilty it seems likely that this video will have played a key role in bringing a measure of justice.