Is plunging ahead with Laura’s Law the appropriate response to the Kelly Thomas verdict?


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Every now and then, over the years, in a masochistic frame of mind, I listen to Rush Limbaugh‘s radio program.  There’s the legitimate “hearing the other point of view” thing, there’s the “what is my enemies’ latest bullshit lines and obsessions” thing, both of which I can get from any FOX program…. but getting it with Rush’s unparalleled obnoxious arrogance is bracing to me, like a blast of cold water.  Call me crazy.

And I remember one time, years ago, I don’t know what liberal government plan he was ridiculing, but his point rightly or wrongly was that it was a non-solution to an imagined problem, and he ranted on in his comical falsetto “liberal” voice, “But there’s a PROBLEM, so we’ve GOT to do SOMETHING!  ANYTHING!  It doesn’t matter what!  There’s a PROBLEM!”  In the televised version, his arms were no doubt waving, his cheek and neck fat waggling.

But that stuck with me, cuz there was truth to it – not just liberals but conservatives too, not just government but business and maybe people in general – when you see a terrible problem and the real solution is either hard to figure or too difficult, it’s tempting to just do SOMETHING, ANYTHING … so as to feel that the problem was at least acknowledged properly.  Even if it wasn’t.

It’s not so far from [and fasten your seatbelts here, we are traveling a light year in the intellectual and moral universe]  anti-corporatist thinker Naomi Klein‘s famed “Shock Doctrine” whereby elites will either CREATE or quickly EXPLOIT a CRISIS … in order to enact a policy they already wanted, and may actually be totally unrelated to the crisis.  (A classic recent example is George W Bush’s using the attacks of Sept 11 as an excuse to invade and occupy Iraq.)

All of us who want to have seen the video of slight, homeless, confused, mentally feeble Kelly Thomas getting beaten and suffocated to death by six Fullerton cops.  We all patiently or impatiently waited two and a half years for him and his family to get some justice in court.  And then, last month, most of us reacted with shock and outrage when a jury of Kelly’s peers found the killer cops not guilty

And as we sat in our stunned silence, having learned that Orange County cops can torture and kill any of us for no reason with impunity, and wondering what to do next, our Board of Supervisors – or at least the ambitious Supervisor John Moorlach – suggested what our next step should be, in the wake of the Kelly Thomas Travesty.

Was it anything to do with fostering civilian oversight committees in OC towns that desperately need them, or anything pushing legislative reform of POBR (the Peace Officer Bill of Rights which severely limits the public’s access to information about police misconduct?)  No!

Was it anything to do with giving teams of cops in each city specialized training in dealing with the mentally ill, as in the wildly successful “Memphis Model” (which we’ll look at below?)  Again, no!

How about getting serious about establishing a 365-day, 24-hour homeless shelter in each of the five supervisorial districts, as Supervisor Nelson tried last year till being stymied by Fullerton NIMBYs?  For the third time, NO!

Supervisor Moorlach believes the proper response to the Kelly Thomas Murder and Acquittals is to bring Laura’s Law to Orange County.  The termed-out, big-hearted but bumbling Supervisor, now running for Congress, wants that to be his legacy, his final big achievement at the County.

Okay.  What Is Laura’s Law?

It’s a 2002 California law signed by Governor Gray Davis (but only in effect in the one county that has implemented it over all these years) – a law which would allow a local court, if they deemed you “a danger to yourself and others,” AND you refused the treatment they claim you need, to force “assisted outpatient services” and anti-psychotic medications on you.  The law was named after Laura Wilcox (left), the 19-year old mental health worker who was shot fatally by the insane Scott Harlan Thorpe (below right) who by some accounts had stubbornly refused psychiatric treatment;  or by other accounts had actually been begging for treatment but told there was nothing tiny Nevada County could do for him.

The law’s passionate Orange County advocates rushed, in the wake of the Kelly Thomas killing, to persuade our Supervisors that the fatal police beating somehow proved that we need Laura’s Law here, but I don’t see the connection.  Do we really want to give the government more power than they already have to detain us, or to force drugs on us “for our own good?”  (Drugs which often have terrible side effects?)  And how many cases are like Thorpe’s tragic shooting of Laura – isn’t this another expensive solution in search of a problem?  One of the law’s strongest advisers and defenders, Dr. Tom Burns, has changed his mind about it as well – read about that here.

Twelve years later, the Law has only been implemented in ONE of California’s 58 counties – faroff Nevada County where the Thorpe-Wilcox tragedy actually happened.  (Nevada County is the little red sliver you see to the left.)   The recalcitrance of the 57 other counties has been due not so much to any lack of do-gooder politicians wanting to protect us from ourselves, as to concerns over the funding.  The Counties that WOULD have maybe adopted the expensive program wanted to fund it from Proposition 63, (a 2004 ballot proposition that raised money specifically for mental health treatment) and were legally unable to … until just recently.  So the money’s there now, but still, in these tough times and with our miserly Supervisors, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t be coming out of programs that are more important and impact more people.

Anyway, the debate over the merits of the Law will be happening in this county soon, so all I ask is:

Just don’t connect Laura’s Law to Kelly Thomas!

There are at least two reasons why using the murder of Kelly Thomas to drum up support for Laura’s Law, or pretending that bringing the Law to Orange County would constitute a good response to the Kelly Thomas murder and acquittal, is OFFENSIVE:

1.  Blaming the Victim.  It’s like responding to a woman getting beat to death by her husband, by starting a school to teach women to be better, more submissive wives.  Kelly didn’t die because he was a danger to anyone; he didn’t die because it was legally impossible to force-feed him medications;  he died because six big brutal cops suffocated and beat him to death for no reason.  Kelly liked to walk the summer night streets of Fullerton shirtless;  to listen to reggae for hours at Baxter’s house;  to bum cigarettes, search for butts, and scrounge through trash cans for interesting-looking items.  Isn’t it every Americans’ God-given right to do ALL those things, without getting murdered OR forcibly medicated?

2.  Laura’s Law wouldn’t have saved him, or even applied to him.  The list of criteria for someone to be forcibly treated and medicated under the Law includes:

  • must be a serious risk of harm to himself or herself or others
  • must have a history of non-compliance with treatment that has either:
    1. Been a significant factor in his or her being in a hospital, prison or jail at least twice within the last thirty-six months; or
    2. Resulted in one or more acts, attempts or threats of serious violent behavior toward self or others within the last forty-eight months.

None of these criteria applied to the gentle Kelly, so even if Laura’s Law had been in place here in July 2011, a roving team of force-medicators could still not have legally shoved a needle of neuroleptics into Kelly.  AND it’s hard to see how he still wouldn’t have gotten beat to death by Fullerton cops before they got there.

Diane Goldstein says:  Bring the “MEMPHIS MODEL” to OC instead!

My colleague, retired cop and reformer Diane Goldstein, and others, say, “More training, better training for the cops!  THAT would have prevented this tragedy.”  Many of us react with bafflement – really, better training would have stopped these thug cops from doing what they wanted to do?  Most of us who watched the video saw two or three sadistic psychopaths and three or four useless oafs doing what they felt like, feeling encouraged and enabled by an unwritten Fullerton policy of scaring all homeless out of the downtown area.

But Diane, with her twenty years beat experience, believes that Ramos, Cicinelli, and the rest were really convinced (wrongly) that little Kelly was a drug-addled menace who could actually HURT them. (!)  And that having them (or other, nearby, less-retarded officers) trained in the growingly popular and successful “Memphis Model” of Crisis Intervention COULD have made all the difference.  (Or at least, it seems to me, have made acquittal and impunity less likely.)   And that for the Supervisors to allocate the funds planned for Kelly’s Law to the Memphis Model instead would be much more appropriate and effective.

Diane will be writing about the Memphis Model on this blog within the week SOON;  until then, John, Shawn, Todd, Pat and Janet, you can find out all about it here.  And in this Democracy Now piece as well.

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Barring that, if Moorlach wants to do something appropriate in memory of Kelly, perhaps a 365-day, 24-hour shelter in his town of Costa Mesa, like Shawn tried to do in Fullerton?  Costa Mesa really needs that.  And/or he could use his bully pulpit to push for police reform in this county.  But neither of those moves would help him in his Congressional run, given all the homeless-phobic NIMBYs and the omnipotent police unions.

Or maybe nothing will happen at all, as the Kelly Thomas travesty slowly sinks into the dimness of our memories….

The bloody massacre in Bangladesh quickly covered over the memory of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Allende drowned out the groans of Bangladesh, the war in the Sinai Desert made people forget Allende, the Cambodian massacre made people forget Sinai, and so on and so forth until ultimately everyone lets everything be forgotten.

– Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979

UPDATE: Here’s Diane’s piece!


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist in Orange County. Performs regularly with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem, and at regular concerts at the Huntington Beach Central Library.