Cops vs. Cameras: The Killing of Kelly Thomas and the Power of New Media


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The autopsy results from the death of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic drifter who was allegedy beaten to death by Fullerton, California police will be announced today by Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. Rackauckas will also announce whether he will file charges against the officers involved in Thomas' death, following the office's investigation. The confrontation with police took place at a municipal bus station on July 5, with Thomas dying in the hospital five days later. This press conference comes weeks after the Fullerton police refused to answer questions about the case.

Regardless of today's announcements, Thomas' death is a case study of how ubiquitous phones with cameras and the Internet are transferring power from the government, police, and the media to the masses. Images and word of the beating spread not because of official communications but by viral cell phone video of the incident and a horrific hospital photo taken by his father of Thomas in a coma.

We already know how influential citizen video can be from the 1991 Rodney King beating in Los Angeles. Now that practically everyone has a camera with them on their cell phone or other device, says Michael German, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, it is increasingly difficult for authorities to dictate the flow of information.

"Technology has changed so much that we now carry cameras and recorders on our very person everywhere we go so it is very easy to immediately pull them up and take a video of whatever is happening," says German.

That is how the Kelly Thomas video was recorded, but it didn't find its way to the nightly news right away like the Rodney King beating. Ron Thomas, Kelly Thomas' father, told Reason.tv that after initial interest, the media stopped covering the story.

"Nothing was going on, I tried contacting everybody, nobody cared to do anything," said Ron Thomas. "So, I released the picture of my son [in his hospital bed] and that got everybody's attention. When the cell phone video came out, I released that. The audio had their attention again. You put together the picture with the sound of what's happening is very, very compelling."

Those images came after the Fullerton police department decided not to release any information, including the names of the officers or even whether Kelly Thomas had a Taser applied to him, a detail that is heard in the video.

Jarrett Lovell, a criminologist at California State University, Fullerton, says the fact Ron Thomas was able to release information before the Fullerton police department's public information officer, Sgt. Andrew Goodrich, underscores a shift in power away from authority to citizens. "That the victim's father, Ron Thomas, was able to release public information before the public information officer from the Fullerton department shows this shift in political power at the local level from police to the citizenry," says Lovell. "Citizens can be the media themselves."

Lovell has written about the role of public information in his book Good Cop/Bad Cop: Mass media and the cycle of police reform, and points out that the Kelly Thomas case seems to be a case study for what public information officers and what law enforcement agencies, "should not do." He says that because the Fullerton police department has not gone public with the facts of the case or released the names of the officers, it looks like they have something to hide. "Public information is essential to keep check on government," says Lovell.

After the photo and video were released, the Fullerton community reacted in outrage at city council meetings and at protests outside the Fullerton police department. Whatever charges are filed (or not) today, the death of Kelly Thomas will remain an example of how new media is changing the old guard.

Written and produced by Paul Detrick, who also narrates. Camera by Detrick, Alex Manning, and Zach Weissmueller. Special thanks to Ron Thomas.

About 8 minutes.

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Related videos:

You're Killing Me: Was a police-related jailhouse death an accident or a homicide?, August 11, 2011

The Killing of Allen Kephart: How the police lost the trust of a law-and-order town, July 5, 2011.

The Government's War on Cameras, May 26, 2011.


The Orange County District Attorney's Office has charged Officer Manuel Ramos with one felony count of second degree murder and one felony count of felony manslaughter.

Officer Jay Cicinelli faces one felony count of manslaughter and a felony count of excessive force.

For more on the charges against the officers, check out Mike Rigg's live blog of the press conference.

For developing news on the Kelly Thomas case, visit the Friends for Fullerton's Future blog.