Death of Black woman after police encounter sheds light on mental health, police abuse and cries for justice
Alesia Thomas (Courtesy Photo)
By Charlene Muhammad, From The Final Call
LOS ANGELES, CA (FinalCall.com) – Alesia Thomas, a Black mother with mental health challenges, ended up arrested, punched, kicked and dead after an encounter involving five white LAPD officers, but only one of them, Mary O’Callaghan, currently stands trial.
Ofc. O’Callaghan could only serve a maximum of three years if convicted of assault. Where is the anger, outrage and cry’s for justice ask a litany of Black women monitoring the trial in what they say will be a predictable outcome of justifiable homicide. Black women’s interactions with law enforcement have also resulted in tragic outcomes brought to light in Alesia’s case and many others.
“One of the things it shows is people continue to talk about police brutality (and) Black men, which is a legitimate point, but we also have to look at what’s been happening with Black women,” stated economist and educator, Dr. Julianne Malveaux.
“Why was this woman treated as less than a human being? Why was she met with violence when she reached out for help? And why, too often, do we see Black women and their cases ignored,” Dr. Malveaux argued.
What happened to Thomas cannot be allowed to happen to another Black woman much less any human being, Dr. Malveaux and other concerned activists and advocates told The Final Call. But in order for that to happen, people need to know how Alesia Thomas and her children were failed by the system in the first place.
Killed in a desperate attempt to get help
The 35-year-old died July 22, 2012, following a struggle with the officers who attempted to arrest her at her home. Her crime: leaving her children ages 12 and three outside a police station at 2 a.m. According to reports, Thomas struggled with drug addiction, mental health problems and brought her children to police because she could no longer care for them.
Audio recording reports revealed Ofc. O’Callaghan told Thomas in vulgar and derogatory slang terms that she would “punt” her v*gina, which she did. Police dash cam video shows Ofc. O’Callaghan, a white, 18-year LAPD veteran, repeatedly kicking her in the stomach and genitals and striking her in the throat while Thomas was handcuffed and in leg restraints. She later died.
The coroner’s report listed the cause of death as “undetermined” and stated cocaine intoxication appears to have al-so contributed as a major factor in her death.
“She was kicked, and she was killed,” said Dr. Malveaux, but Thomas did what she was supposed to do, which is take her children to a safe haven if parents have worries about the way they’re treating their children.
“She would have been treated better if she left them (her children) on the corner. She went to a place that she perceived as a safe place, and it was not a safe place for her by any stretch of the imagination,” Dr. Malveaux continued.
A further problem under-scored in this case is there are available mental health and social service resources but they’re differentially available, she pointed out.
Dr. Sandra Cox, executive director of the Coalition of Mental Health, Los Angeles, sighed as she told The Final Call the incident occurred directly across the street from their building.
Ms. Thomas followed the public plea to parents, advertised by Children and Family Services, and other agencies which is the directive to call 2-1-1, take your child to the fire department, the police department or a hospital, said Dr. Cox. The directive is advertised everywhere, she said in defense of the slain mother.
“She just didn’t walk away from them and leave them in the middle of the street … and then this happens to her. The message that goes out loud and clear as far as I’m concerned is don’t take your children to the police department, because your mother may get killed and you may end up being an orphan,” Dr. Cox told The Final Call.
Mental health struggles and poor resources
Dr. Cox noted all cultures in the world suffer a certain amount of stigma when it comes to mental health issues, which is part of the problem. Thomas used her faculties the best she could, Dr. Cox said. And while she doesn’t know if Thomas was under specific treatment, she noted people must remember that many of the mental health institutions were stripped from communities in need by former President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, leaving many with no place to turn for help.
“He closed every boarding care facility in the state of California … That was blatantly obvious to us to see all of these newly homeless people. I think we need to point the blame where it legitimately belongs,” Dr. Cox continued. “That’s the LAPD, which is completely out of control, its rogue, cops, and Ofc. O’Callaghan,” she added.
Ms. Thomas needed help but not the kind of help she got, Dr. Cox continued. Another aspect to monitor is the reality that all of the cops who engaged Thomas are rogue cops who are out of control, have mental health disorders, and who need mental health treatment themselves, Dr. Cox charged.
She said she didn’t know if any Black woman in her right mind would ever take her children to the police station after hearing Thomas’ story.
But that’s just the point, noted L.A.-based author and journalist Thandisizwe Chimurenga. Thomas wasn’t in her right mind, except it was right enough for that Black mother to see to it her babies were safe and away from her, yet she was savagely punished, Chimurenga pointed out. This type of response isn’t seen in other cultures in terms of these safe haven laws, she told The Final Call, via email.
What people are learning and confronting across the country, is that police did what they do best in Black communities, which is to arrest, oppress and repress, rather than protect and serve, added Chimurenga.
Police serving means providing critical needs to the people in the communities they work in. “We need safe havens, mental health services, referrals, transportation to mental health spaces and safe havens. The police are not a taxi service. When people are having ‘episodes’ the police are not the ones who should be called,” she added. Call anybody and everybody except the police unless you want your loved one to end up dead,” Chimurenga said
Chimurenga continued, “Very, very rarely— and I mean rarely— do officers employ compassionate or empathic discretion and say, ‘You know what, we could arrest you or call DCFS but instead, we’re going to refer you to this place or that place, and we’re gonna check back, and if x,y and z hasn’t happened, then we’re going to have to arrest you.’”
From her understanding of reports, Chimurenga said police were questioning Ms. Thomas in her apartment and she didn’t like the line of questioning, and informed them she was going to leave.
Police arrested her to keep her from leaving because they were “investigating” how the children came to be left at the police station, she said. “She was in her own apartment but was not allowed to leave, or, ‘terminate the interview’,” she continued.
Do Black women’s lives matter?
So where are national white feminists organizations like the National Organization of Women, Feminist Majority, CODE PINK, 9 to 5, and others that champion the rights of women? And why are they seemingly late or absent altogether when it comes to women like Thomas?
Chimurenga feels such organizations are always more absent than late. “And I think we should stop looking for them to show up. There is a saying that ‘sisterhood is global,’ but I think the reality is ‘white supremacy is global’,” she stated.
However, national and international women of color organizations such as AF3IRM, the Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting against Re-feudalization and Marginalization, Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and others always stand with Black women and speak out on their behalf. Black women should continue to nurture and support those relationships, said Chimurenga.
Meanwhile, the effort to raise awareness about Black women’s deaths at the hands of police continues. A challenge is that there is no national database which tracks police use of deadly force. Individual police departments report on their own, according to a recent USA Today article.
Activists say since there is no national accountability, it is easy to see the flaw making it possible for agencies not to report at all. Hence, the number of men, women and children killed by “justifiable homicide” may never be known.
Activists applaud organizations like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement for its efforts to track the number of extrajudicial killings with its 2012 groundbreaking report which revealed that every 36 hours a Black person is killed by a police officer, security, or vigilante in the United States. “Every 36 Hours” examined the killing of 120 Black People.
The organization updated its results that same year after a study of 312 killings and reported in “Operation Ghetto Storm” that every 28 hours, a Black man, woman or child was killed by police, security guards, and vigilantes.
A few of the untold stories involving deaths of Black women at the hands of law enforcement include that of Shereese Francis of Queens, New York. The 30-year-old, who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, had stopped taking her medications, prompting her sister Shauna Francis to call out for help.
Her call to 311, NYC’s information hotline was transferred to an emergency line. Police were dispatched before an ambulance to serve the mentally ill woman. Shereese Francis was handcuffed face down until she stopped breathing. Her death, ruled a homicide by the medical examiner stated, “compression of trunk during agitated violent behavior (schizophrenia) while prone on bed and attempted restraint by police officer.”
Meanwhile, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck stated in a May 20 press release as opening trial statements began for Ofc. O’Callaghan, “When any officer is suspected of going beyond the law, the LAPD will thoroughly investigate the allegations and work closely with the District Attorney’s Office to bring charges where appropriate.”
The last line of Chief Beck’s statement sharply notes: “All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” But what about Alesia Thomas, denied the right to even get to ‘defendant’ status and present her side in the same court? ask activists. They are not optimistic justice will be served and that Ofc. O’Callaghan will be found guilty or serve time in jail.
Nonetheless, Chimurenga hopes that doesn’t happen. “I am not in the courtroom every day, listening to the lies of her fellow police officers or her defense attorney, reading the jury, so I don’t know, but given how most jurors have: 1) preconceived notions and unstated biases against Black people, and 2) how most jurors support police uncritically, and 3) given recent historical precedent, I will not be surprised if she is found not guilty,” she said.
Dr. Conrad Worrill, director and professor of the Carruthers Center for Inner City Study at Northeastern Illinois University told The Final Call the foundation of white supremacy and its male dominant world placement of women, Black women in particular at the bottom of the human scale has affected Blacks.
“It also relates to the fact that there are so many brothers caught up in the criminal justice system that get taken from us at the hands of the police,” he told The Final Call. “What happens to our women should also be valued and elevated.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, a New York-based think tank, agrees. In an interview with Mic.com, she said it’s understandable why there’s so much coverage of Black men being killed by police, but the relative exclusion of women from this topic should be cause for concern.
“Consider the fact that before each of the prominent cases of police homicides have occurred, there have been women killed and we don’t know anything about what happened to them,” she told Mic.com. “Their funerals aren’t the site of activism, their mothers don’t get invited to the State of the Union or the White House as a symbol of commitment to eliminating this problem. That element of erasure sends a message that these losses of life don’t matter.”
Crenshaw added, “Women with mental health issues, they can’t speak to what’s really going on with them. When they act out they are subdued and caged regardless of them having mental health issues.”
But when it comes to mental health issues and the police, Black people are on the short end of the stick. LaKeisha Gray-Sewell is a long-time Chicago activist. She told The Final Call that “it’s less than human treatment.”
“They don’t ask if the person is mentally ill or are they on medication. What about their welfare or well-being?”
(Nisa Islam Muhammad and Angelita Muhammad contributed to this report.)