Af­ter ver­dict, tragedy re­mains

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - sandy.banks@la­times.com

The guilty ver­dict may pro­vide a mea­sure of com­fort for Ale­sia Thomas’ fam­ily.

A Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment of­fi­cer was con­victed Fri­day of as­sault in a 2012 ar­rest, when she shoved and kicked Thomas, who was strug­gling to breathe in the back seat of a pa­trol car. Thomas, in hand­cuffs and leg re­straints, was dead by the time an am­bu­lance got her to a hos­pi­tal.

The of­fi­cer, Mary O’Cal­laghan, was hauled off to jail right af­ter the jury ver­dict.

Her con­vic­tion is be­ing hailed as a victory in a jus­tice sys­tem that too of­ten fails to pro­tect vic­tims of po­lice bru­tal­ity.

But it doesn’t ad­dress an­other is­sue that we can’t af­ford to keep ig­nor­ing: Thomas was not a danger­ous crim­i­nal sus­pect, just a des­per­ate strug­gling mother. Did she be­long in that pa­trol car?

She was be­ing ar­rested for drop­ping off her two chil­dren, ages 3 and 12, at an LAPD sta­tion in the mid­dle

of the night. They had a bag of clothes and a note ask­ing po­lice to call their grand­mother. Of­fi­cers were dis­patched to Thomas’ South Los An­ge­les apart­ment, where she re­port­edly told them she was ad­dicted to drugs and not up to deal­ing with kids.

What she’d done was con­sid­ered child en­dan­ger­ment, and po­lice were determined to take her into cus­tody. Thomas was just as determined to be left alone. She re­sisted, and O’Cal­laghan re­sponded with threats and brute force.

Thomas’ death is not be­ing blamed on po­lice; an au­topsy at­trib­uted it, in part, to co­caine in­tox­i­ca­tion. The in­ci­dent didn’t even make news un­til months af­ter she died, when pa­trol-car videos of O’Cal­laghan’s kick led to a crim­i­nal charge of as­sault un­der color of author­ity.

I wrote about the in­ci­dent back then, ques­tion­ing the de­ci­sion to ar­rest a trou­bled woman for a choice that may have made sense to her and kept her chil­dren out of dan­ger.

LAPD Com­man­der Michel Moore con­sid­ered the ques­tion in starkly dif­fer­ent terms: “It’s not our re­spon­si­bil­ity to turn a blind eye and say, ‘Well, she’s got a drug prob­lem and she’s just a vic­tim’ or what­ever,” he told me then.

“We’re the agency of last re­sort. At 2 in the morn­ing, there’s no one else for us to turn to and say, ‘Hey, can you han­dle this for us.’ ’’

Moore is right about that much. Po­lice are forced to re­spond to so­cial is­sues — home­less­ness, men­tal ill­ness, al­co­holism and drug abuse — be­cause we have failed to ad­dress them.

None of that ex­cuses O’Cal­laghan’s cruel and crim­i­nal acts. But while she’s do­ing time, we ought to take a look at the forces that con­spire to harden of­fi­cers’ hearts.

I went to court pre­pared to de­spise O’Cal­laghan. The video pro­vides plenty of ammunition.

It records her ugly in­sults. It shows her jab­bing her boot into Thomas’ stom­ach and crotch. A few min­utes later, Thomas is un­con­scious. O’Cal­laghan peeks into the car, takes a drag from her cig­a­rette and ca­su­ally re­marks: “I don’t think she’s breath­ing.”

In his fi­nal ar­gu­ment, the pros­e­cu­tor made sure the jury took note: “This is a po­lice of­fi­cer that is so cyn­i­cal about the peo­ple she po­lices, she de­hu­man­izes them,” As­sis­tant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Shan­non Presby said.

But out­side the court­house, af­ter O’Cal­laghan was taken away in hand­cuffs, her lawyer Robert Rico tried to paint a dif­fer­ent pic­ture:

O’Cal­laghan spent 13 years in the Marines “de­fend­ing our coun­try” and 18 years on the LAPD pro­tect- ing our streets, he said. She’s the type of of­fi­cer who buys Hal­loween cos­tumes for kids in the projects and hands out Christ­mas gifts.

Her com­ments and be­hav­ior the night Thomas died were an “aber­ra­tion,” he said; one bad night in an oth­er­wise ex­em­plary life.

O’Cal­laghan re­grets that the last words Thomas heard were the in­sults she de­liv­ered, Rico said. “As a mother and a daugh­ter, that’s been weigh­ing on her heav­ily.”

Thomas was a mother and daugh­ter too. And if she had lived, her de­ci­sion to dump her kids on the cops might be weigh­ing on her heav­ily.

What hap­pened that night was an aber­ra­tion for her, said her mother, Son­dra Thomas.

“She didn’t come to them to throw her kids away,” her mother told me back then. Ale­sia Thomas had been de­pressed for years, since her fa­ther died in 2006. She’d be­come frus­trated by her 12-year-old son’s ob­ses­sion with video games. She’d tried to reach her mother, whose cell­phone was turned off.

“The kids were get­ting on her nerves. She was just tired, real tired,” Son­dra Thomas said.

There’s a heart-wrench­ing sort of irony to her daugh­ter’s death in the cus­tody of po­lice.

Ale­sia Thomas be­lieved — and taught her chil­dren — that the po­lice sta­tion was a place where they would be safe.

Her mother still can’t un­der­stand how things went so wrong:

“When the kids came walk­ing in there, with their lit­tle satchel and [my] phone num­ber, you ex­pect the po­lice to say: ‘What do we have here? Let’s get a man and a woman of­fi­cer to go over and ask your mom what’s go­ing on. What is­sues are you suf­fer­ing from.’

“To sit down and have a lit­tle talk and find out what’s go­ing on. To ap­proach her de­cently.”

That would be the real mean­ing of com­mu­nity polic­ing.

It’s treat­ing res­i­dents, no mat­ter how bro­ken or bel­liger­ent they are, not like prob­lems but like peo­ple you ac­tu­ally care about.

Kent Nishimura Los An­ge­les Times

ROBERT RICO, at­tor­ney for LAPD Of­fi­cer Mary O’Cal­laghan, called her be­hav­ior in the 2012 in­ci­dent an “aber­ra­tion” in the of­fi­cer’s ca­reer.

ALE­SIA THOMAS was worn out when she left her chil­dren with po­lice, her mother said.

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