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Calif. police training eyed after mentally ill man dies

Six officers were trying to search 37-year-old Kelly Thomas' backpack after reports someone had been breaking into cars when an altercation broke out that ultimately resulted in Thomas' death from severe head and neck injuries

By Amy Taxin and Gillian Flaccus
Associated Press

FULLERTON, Calif. — Police should have been intimately familiar with Kelly Thomas and his history of mental illness.

Thomas had a 16-year string of arrests in the country around Fullerton, Calif., for everything from assault with a deadly weapon to public urination to jaywalking.

But somehow, things ended differently this time.

Six officers who were trying to search Thomas' backpack after reports someone had been breaking into cars at a transit hub got into a violent fight with the 37-year-old, who later died of severe head and neck injuries.

His death has drawn outrage in the college town and raised questions about how well city police are trained to deal with the mentally ill.

Some big-city police departments undergo extensive training in such issues, often triggered by similar, highly public incidents that end badly.

"No police officer would believe it is appropriate to kill somebody who has a mental illness," said Melissa Reuland, a consultant to the Council of State Governments Justice Center who researches this issue.

"When these situations do occur, it is often because there has been a lack of the appropriate tools to deescalate the situation," Reuland said.

Law enforcement officials say that more needs to be done to train officers in how to recognize symptoms and deal with people with mental illness, said Elaine Deck, at the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Sometimes, an untrained officer can make a situation worse, she said.

"Handcuffing them may escalate the behavior where the officer may think they are trying to calm the person," Deck said. "They may not know that this may actually escalate a response."

Increasingly, police departments are using an experiential training program that requires officers to wear headsets that play aggressive voices as they try to perform basic tasks, like buying a soda at a store, to understand the perspective of the mentally ill.

Actors or mental health professionals also simulate real-life scenarios officers might face when they're on the beat.

Last month, Thomas was sitting on a bench at the Fullerton Transportation Center, a hub for buses and commuter trains where homeless people congregate, when the officers arrived to investigate reports of a man burglarizing cars.

Police said he ran when they tried to search his backpack and that he resisted arrest.

The incident was captured by a bystander with a cell phone, and bus surveillance tape released Monday showed agitated witnesses describing how officers beat Thomas and used a stun gun on him repeatedly as he cried out for his father.

On the cell phone video, a man can be heard screaming over a fast, clicking sound that those on the tape identify as a stun gun being deployed.

Thomas was taken off life support five days after the July 5 altercation.

The police department has called the case an isolated incident. Officers receive training on how to deal with the mentally ill and the homeless.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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