Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Daddy, help! They're killing me!'

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
Ron Thomas, left, reacts when he finds out two police officers will be charged in the beating death of his son, Kelly Thomas.
Ron Thomas, left, reacts when he finds out two police officers will be charged in the beating death of his son, Kelly Thomas.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two police officers are charged in the beating death last July of Kelly Thomas
  • Ruben Navarrette: Courts must treat cops the same as any suspected criminals
  • Victim was a homeless mentally ill man, his dad a retired cop with a mission for justice
  • Navarrette: It's hard to watch horrifying video showing Thomas begging for his dad

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- As evidenced by media stories and public awareness campaigns, Americans have resolved to get tough on bullying. In that spirit, it's time to send a message to bullies with badges.

We need to tell police who prey on the vulnerable: "No more! When you pile on a suspect and beat him to death, we will treat you just like any other alleged criminal. We will arrest you and prosecute you. And if convicted, you will go to prison for a very long time. We will make an example out of you so that other police officers will think twice before abusing their power."

The messenger could be the jury that will hear the case against two police officers in Fullerton, California, a city about 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles. A judge ruled Wednesday that the officers will stand trial in the beating death last July of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man afflicted with schizophrenia.

Cpl. Jay Patrick Cicinelli is charged with involuntary manslaughter and felony use of excessive force. Officer Manuel Ramos faces the more serious charge of second-degree murder, because prosecutors believe he took a more active role in the assault. Both officers have pleaded not guilty.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

This week, at the preliminary hearing to determine whether enough evidence supports proceeding with a trial, prosecutors aired a graphic video of the savage beating. The footage shows about a half dozen officers punching and kicking and putting pressure on Thomas' chest, firing electric shocks from a Taser stun gun, all to supposedly subdue a suspect well beyond the point where he is resisting or capable of resisting arrest.

Early on, Ramos appears to tell the young man who is sitting on the ground: "You see my fists? They're getting ready to f--- you up!" Another police officer is heard saying: "We ran out of options so I got to the end of my Taser and I ... smashed his face to hell."

By the end of the video, Thomas is lying in a pool of blood. According to prosecutors, the young man suffered brain injuries, facial fractures, broken ribs and extensive bruises and abrasions. He died five days later.

What we see in that 33 minutes of footage, including a defenseless Thomas screaming in pain, saying he's sorry and pleading for help, should never happen in the United States of America. When it does happen, it can't be tolerated, justified, or excused.

That's coming from the son of a retired cop. My father wore a badge for 36 years, and he has no stomach for police brutality. In fact, about 20 years ago, when another piece of videotape surfaced -- that of the Rodney King beating by police officers in 1991 -- I remember my father telling me that, as far as he was concerned, those out-of-control law enforcement officers wailing on King had ceased being cops and become little more than thugs and criminals.

Video shows cops beating homeless man

As it turns out, Thomas' father is also a retired law enforcement officer. After his son died, Ron Thomas made it his mission to make sure the story got out and would not be forgotten. He used social media and the Internet to show the world what those officers had done to his son, complete with graphic photos that he took at the side of Kelly Thomas' hospital bed.

This is a good dad. But he was also, apparently, a good cop who trained fellow deputies on the right way to take down suspects. This is the wrong way. Thomas described the officers' actions as nothing less than a "hate crime against the homeless and mentally ill."

Last year, Fullerton city officials offered Thomas nearly a million dollars to settle the case. He turned it down, and instead pushed for a criminal trial.

This should bring some small comfort to Ron Thomas. He needs it. He has to carry around with him for the rest of his life that, as his son was fighting for his life, he cried out for his father to protect him from these bullies. On the video, we hear Kelly Thomas screaming: "Daddy, help! They're killing me!" As a father myself, those words break my heart.

"Daddy, help! They're killing me!"

He was killed. And now, if the cops are convicted of this crime, they have to pay.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT