Family sues police for video after violent death in custody

Updated
File Photo: Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck (C) speaks during a news conference at Los Angeles Dodger Stadium on April 14, 2011 in Los...
File Photo: Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck (C) speaks during a news conference at Los Angeles Dodger Stadium on April 14, 2011 in Los...
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/File

Alesia Thomas died in police custody last July after having her hands and ankles bound together behind her back and being kicked in the genitals by an officer. On Monday, Thomas’ family announced plans to file a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), seeking the release of dash-cam video taken the night of her death, showing her last moments alive.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Sandra Thomas, the dead woman’s mother, told msnbc.com on Monday, minutes before announcing the lawsuit at a press conference. “We have the right to see how they treated my daughter. And I believe someone is hiding something from us.”

Lawyers for Thomas’ family said video captured by police dashboard cameras could shed light on exactly how the 35-year-old mother of two died. The LAPD acknowledged the existence of the video in August, saying in a statement that it “revealed some questionable tactics and improper comments.”

LAPD Cmd. Andy Smith told the Los Angeles Times Monday afternoon that the tape would not be released until the department’s investigation of the incident is completed, at which point the department will present its findings to the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal charges, or internal disciplinary procedures, against the five officers involved. So far, a supervising sergeant and four police officers on the scene the night of Thomas’ death have been reassigned and placed on administrative duty, Smith said.

Earlier public statements from the police described the confrontation between Thomas and a least five police officers in violent and dramatic terms. Just hours before Thomas’ encounter with police, she reportedly dropped off her two children, 12 and 3, at a South Los Angeles police station, saying later that she was a drug addict and struggling to support her family. Officers later tracked down the distraught mother at her home, where police arrested her on Child Endangerment charges.

As officers attempted to take Thomas into custody, they said she began “violently” resisting arrest. One officer then took her down with a “leg sweep.” At some point during the struggle, according to eye-witness reports, officers yelled out profanities and disparaging comments about the woman’s weight.

One female officer then threatened to kick the woman in the genitals if she didn’t calm down and comply, a threat the officer then carried out. Thomas continued to resist, police say, so officers placed her in a “hobble restraint device,” essentially hog-tying her by securing her ankles to her handcuffed hands.

Within minutes Thomas was dead in the backseat of a police cruiser.

“It’s really straightforward and clear,” Benjamin Crump, a Thomas family lawyer, who also represents the family of slain Miami teenager Trayvon Martin, told msnbc.com. “How long before they release this video? What is it they don’t want us to see? That’s the simple crux of the matter here. If this was your family and you lost a loved one in police custody and they tell you they have a video but they don’t want to show it to you, that’s insult to injury.”

Steven B. Effres, another Thomas family lawyer, said he has also filed a notice of claim on behalf of the family in a wrongful death lawsuit they plan to file against the city.

“The video is going to tell us a lot,” Effres said. “[Police Chief] Charlie Beck said right after the LAPD disclosed that they had video, that what he wanted was transparency in this case, and if that’s true and they really want transparency, than the community needs to know and deserves to know what this tape shows and what happened to Alesia. The community deserves that.”

“I take all in-custody death investigations very seriously,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement in late August. “I am confident we will get to the truth no matter where that leads us.”

Thomas’ death was one of a spate of high-profile use-of-force cases to rock the LAPD over the course of just a few months this summer. In August four police officers were captured on a cell phone video tackling a 20-year-old skateboarder who was skating on the wrong side of the street. One of the officers is then seen punching the man in the face.

Weeks later another video emerged in which a pair of LAPD officers was shown body slamming a handcuffed woman to the ground. Moments later, the two officers congratulated each other with a fist bump.

The slammed woman was a nurse who’d been pulled over for holding her cell phone while driving.

Each of these three cases began somewhat routinely but ended dramatically and with what critics called old-school, LAPD violence, evoking the days when department earned a reputation for violence against citizens.

After years of federal oversight following the 1991 Rodney King beating, some said the department seemed to be making strides. But among other cases, the Thomas case has drawn fear of a backslide.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable said Thomas’s death and other violent incidents perpetrated by the LAPD are eroding gains made after the King years when the department stressed diversity and community involvement, and redoubled efforts to enhance its people policies.

“Could this be the first step to reverting to the bad old ways of the LAPD of the past?” Hutchinson asked. “I am deeply concerned about about transparency and the video tape, but also, what kind of discipline do officers accused of [brutality] receive?

He continued: “People need to see the department vigorous, aggressive, and moving with immediacy to essentially get a handle on any acts of abuse by officers. The problem with this case, if that doesn’t happen it sends a subtle message [to officers] that you have a license, not a directive, but it just sends a subtle message that there’s a laxity when it comes to any kind of abuse or misconduct or a violation of policy.”

“It’s very dangerous and slippery,” he said.

Thomas’ mother said the department hasn’t reached out to the family since the episode.

“No one has called me or shown any concern,” Sandra Thomas said of the police.

“What the police are saying is that your daughter, your mother, she died,” Effres, the lawyer, chimed in. “The circumstances are very questionable, we’ve already disclosed as a police department that one officer threatened to kick her in the genital area, followed through with the threat, berated her verbally, put her in a police car handcuffed and with her ankles tied, complaining of chest pain and she lived her last moment in that police car.

“They chose to disclose bits and pieces of that information,” he said. “The rest of the story will be in that video.”

Family sues police for video after violent death in custody

Updated