NEAL CONAN, HOST:
When a homeless schizophrenic man named Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by police in California last year, Carmelo Valone could not help but remember his own encounter with the police in Boston 17 years ago and reflect on the particular vulnerability of the mentally ill. In a piece in The Los Angeles Times, Valone argues that fewer will die if police can develop better strategies to deal with people like him. If this is you, if you've had experience with this story in law enforcement or as someone who lives with mental illness, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Carmelo Valone is a writer, the author of the LA Times article "My Kelly Thomas Moment," and he joins us now from our West Coast bureau in Culver City, California. Nice to have you with us today.
CARMELO VALONE: Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: And it's interesting, when you - at one point in your article when you write about Kelly Thomas, you refer to him in the generic, and then say no, no, no; it's not when we deal with people like him, people like us.
VALONE: Exactly, exactly. The mentally ill, whether you live on the street or you're in a business office, they're all the same. Makes no difference where we put our heads at night and speak(ph) .
CONAN: And you write that you were never exactly a homeless person but were, the night of your encounter with the police, just kicked out of your apartment.
VALONE: I was, yes. I never was actually homeless, but I lived in residential treatment centers, actually at McLean Hospital. McLean - your last guest the other day, Fletcher...
VALONE: ...the author about the OCD book, he was actually a McLean graduate too, from what I heard.
CONAN: Fletcher Wortmann, yeah.
VALONE: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: And he was talking about his problems with OCD. You, though, had - describe what happened that night.
VALONE: Well, I mean basically I was getting kicked out of my apartment, and I had nowhere to go. And I had no one to talk to about it. At that point in my life I wasn't ready to face the things that I had to face, so I took a walk, hoping to self-destruct, basically. And that's what I did.
CONAN: You write that you were in an absolute rage, in part because you had stopped taking medications, in part, you write, because those medications were way overmedicated, as they were for a lot of people back in those days, 15, 20 years ago. And that you could not stop punching holes in windows.
VALONE: That correct, yeah. I mean, back then Prozac was as common as a Starbucks coffee. You know, I mean, I think towards the end of my Prozac regime, I was on almost 100 milligrams. So yeah, I basically had to get out of all this rage that I had no idea how to formulate an opinion or write something down. So it came out in a physical form. When people don't have a voice, generally speaking, it will come out any which way you cut it, in a physical form, artistically, verbally.
CONAN: You were punching holes in windows, first in a school, then in the office building next door. There was alarm on one of those windows. The police arrived shortly thereafter. You ran until they cornered you in the parking lot of a Trader Joe's.
VALONE: That is correct, actually. They chased me. My hand was bleeding quite profusely, the vein was cut open. I flipped over the cop car hood. It was like some sort of MacGyver move.
VALONE: And they chased me into this parking lot. And sooner than later, there were more and more cops surrounding me. I still was very afraid for my life because here I am, it's the middle of the night. There's no one around. There's no - this was before, you know, cellphone cameras. Even cars, you know, the police cars don't have video cameras back then. So I didn't want to go with them. I kept ducking. And they kept spraying me with pepper spray, and I would duck. And they were spraying each other, which was making them even more angry. And they had a number of choice words to say about me after that particular moment (unintelligible)...
CONAN: Yet finally they subdue you, and they do not beat you to death nor did they shoot you.
VALONE: No. Exactly, exactly. I felt very lucky that they just took me to the hospital. And I was handcuffed to - in a hospital bed for 24 hours. I did have pepper spray covering my body. It was burning, and I kept on requesting for something to make the pain go away, some sort of anti-inflammatory cream. But because my body was actually allergic to the pepper spray, I didn't really put that in the article. But it was really painful for over 24 hours, and then I was transferred to my second home, McLean Hospital, so...
CONAN: And that's another story. But let us focus on the incident and Kelly Thomas. You write that it is important for police to understand they do have the authority to lock people up who are in a condition you were in, and, in fact, there's a necessity for this, but there's also a right way to do it and a wrong way.
VALONE: Exactly, exactly. I mean, these police officers obviously didn't (unintelligible) the wrong way. I almost – I almost want to say that these police officers were the mentally ill ones, and Kelly Thomas was the sane one in the situation. I mean, they tasered him. They smashed him with the taser, buttons, the flashlights. They broke his throat. I mean, it's horrifying. I mean, I had nightmares about it for months, and I feel very badly for his family.
CONAN: Of course, the police officers have something to say on their side, as well. They felt threatened by someone who is out of control.
VALONE: He had no weapons though, you know? He had no weapons. He wasn't posing any sort of threat from what the witnesses say.
CONAN: We'll have to find out what the investigation says. But nevertheless, as we look at the situation, what can help police officers deal people like Kelly Thomas, like you?
VALONE: Well, I mean, I was watching Spike Lee's documentary on Katrina the other day, before I wrote this. And I saw in New Orleans they have these things called mobile psychiatric crisis units where when the police have to deal with someone who's mentally ill is having a breakdown, something like that, they call these response units, and they come to the scene. And I talked to myself, why doesn't every city have this? You know, why doesn't Orange County have a general crisis team? Why doesn't Los Angeles? Why doesn't New York, D.C.? I mean, it's really a great idea. I'm sure it would cut down on the time the police have to take to do these situations.
CONAN: We'd like to hear from you if Carmelo Valone's story, if indeed Kelly Thomas' story, is your story - either or someone who lives with mental illness or someone who's been in law enforcement. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let's go to James. And James is with us from West Haven in Connecticut.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
JAMES: Well, I'm a psychologist and, for a number of years, was a chief at two children's hospitals and was involved with the development of crisis and intervention training in Connecticut along with the Citizens Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement. Starting it down in Alabama, there - they developed this CIT training for police. It's a weeklong training program that really, really, really affectively treats - teaches the police how to deal with violent and mentally ill people in such a way that nobody dies and that the person gets the kind of mental health that they - and support that they need.
CONAN: James. I was just...
CONAN: I was just going to ask, first of all, when did you start this training?
JAMES: Well, it's been around for a number of years. We - I assisted a group here in Connecticut to bring it to leading urban areas in Connecticut. And as your person earlier said, it's not available in every city in the United States, and it really should be. The training was funded by a federal branch. And not only are the mentally ill people served better, but it turns out, that in the long run, the cops attitude towards his job and his effectiveness as a police officer increases enormously.
CONAN: And have you got demonstrable evidence that it makes it difference?
JAMES: Oh, absolutely. There's been research in the literature done on this by different groups all over the country, and the overwhelming evidence is that it works. It saves the life of the mentally ill person. They get triaged into care, and everybody wins. For example, in New Haven, they have a model similar to what your other interviewer - interviewee said, which they - the police officer can call out a clinical team from Yale University Medical School who will then assist the person to become referred into the kind of care that they need.
I think we made an awful mistake in our country in the '70s, when I was in grad school, when we deinstitutionalized the mentally ill, thinking that life would be better for them in the community. Nothing like that has ever occurred. Number one, the community didn't want them living with them and, number two, as you said quite adequately before, eventually, the mentally ill in the community stopped taking their medications. And then they become increasingly out of control. They get involved with alcohol and drugs and petty crime. Increasing numbers of the mentally ill are now being incarcerated in our prison. We have one prison in Connecticut alone that houses nothing but mentally ill people that broke the law.
CONAN: Carmelo Valone, I wonder if you thought about - obviously, your encounter was in Boston 17 years ago. I don't know if any of those officers had any kind of this training. Clearly, there was no clinical unit called out, in your case, and clearly there was none in the case of Kelly Thomas, either. And there might be situations where even if such a team existed, it couldn't arrive in time. But this kind of intervention seems to be on the rise.
VALONE: Yes, yes. I would hope so. I mean, it sounds like a great program if we can get it going, you know, quicker, so that people that actually need it. That would be fantastic.
CONAN: James, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
JAMES: Other than Thorazine, we have Prozac, and we have other antipsychotic and antidepressant medications, which makes their life good. But the problem is, that when they're living alone in the community, eventually they say, I'm feeling better. I don't need my medication anymore. And I had a colleague who had a son who was mentally ill, and they were devoutly Catholic. They paid for a psychiatrist. They did all these wonderful things, and the boy basically stops taking his meds, unknown to his father, and one afternoon, tragically several years ago, the wife came home and found the husband's head cut off and with the son lying next to him with a bullet in his brain.
CONAN: That would be an extreme story. And, James, I think you know well, that most people who, even if they stopped taking their meds, don't perform - act like that. That's very unusual.
JAMES: It is very unusual, but it's a risk factor though, you know?
CONAN: I understand what you're saying. Thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking about...
VALONE: And, Neal, can I just say something?
VALONE: I didn't become violent because I stopped taking my medication. I was violent because I was frustrated because no one was listening to me, OK? This is a problem I'd heard, time and time again, because I have friends that are in the psychiatry field - a number of them. And people seem to equate not taking the medication with violence. There are other ways of communication. I mean, to me, talk therapy was very important. Creative therapy, as well. I just wanted to say that one thing.
CONAN: I understand. Carmelo Valone wrote a piece called "My Kelly Thomas Moment," which appeared in the Los Angeles Times in March. There's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. Let's go next to Jean, and Jean's with us from Fort Myers in Florida.
CONAN: Go ahead, Jean.
JEAN: ...for taking my call. I have a mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder. It was diagnosed back in the '90s. I've never been violent. That's not my thing. I have this fight or flight thing going on, and I only fight if I can't flee. And I was having some difficulty with the symptoms, and it's not a medication thing. I was dealing with some difficult issues in my life, and I exceeded the speed limit, and I got pulled over by a police officer. And I know there's not - as not respectful as he would have liked me to be. He got angry at me. And he told me he was arresting me for speeding, and I was a little bit shocked by the whole thing. I looked at him and I said, you can't arrest me for speeding. He didn't like my tone. He didn't like the way I handled the situation. He yanked me out of the car. He beat the crap out of me. He Tazed me five times, and when he had in handcuffs, he sprayed Mace in my face.
In the report, he claims that I just went ballistic, was holding on to the wheel of - the steering wheel of the car and refusing to get out of the car. If that's what I was doing, which isn't what I was doing - we were having a conversation, even if he didn't liked my attitude. If I was, I posed no threat to him nor the community, holding on to the steering wheel. And according to the 911 report, there was a police officer on the scene five minutes after he called in the 911. They refused to take me to the hospital. When I was released from jail, I took - I had somebody take me to the hospital, and they had to perform emergency surgery because my lung was collapsing. And if I had not had that surgery when I did, the chances are, within the hour, I would've been dead. I'm all of 110 pounds against 240 pounds and over 6'4".
CONAN: I'm sorry that happened, Jean, and I'm...
JEAN: Yeah, so am I, because as an American citizen, mental ill or not, I'm not a violent person, and I'm sorry that I said - and I'm sorry I didn't give him the respect that he felt was due. But they used the fact that I have a mental illness as a reason to - it further damaged me. I mean, I can't get representation in the court. I can't represent myself because this is still so emotional for me, that when I talk about it, it comes across that I'm upset and angry about it, and I can't advocate for myself.
CONAN: Excuse me, Jean. I just wanted to ask Carmelo. One of the points you wanted to make was how vulnerable people with mental illness are.
VALONE: Exactly, exactly. And when police have used their power like they did in this instance here - and I'm so sorry this happened to you - it's like you're running - it's like you're standing there naked and everyone can see, and it's a horrifying, humiliating feeling.
CONAN: Jean, thank you very much for the call, and we wish you the best of luck. And, Carmelo Valone, thanks very much for your time today.
VALONE: Oh, thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Carmelo Valone, a writer and student of creative writing at Antioch University in Los Angeles. His article, "My Kelly Thomas Moment," appeared in the L.A. Times. A link is available on our website, go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Tomorrow, as the Trayvon Martin story hurdles one, we'll look at how the media's covered truths and misinformation shaping the national debate. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.