To me this story exemplifies the tendency of today’s Leftist college students to think from gut rather than the brain, and to react to a “social justice” incident precipitously and in an accusatory manner—without knowing the facts. Sadly, the story took place at my University.
Last Tuesday, the University of Chicago police (who are armed and deputized to act like Chicago city police) were called to an alley not too far from me, responding to a report that a man wielding an iron bar was breaking doors and car windows. The police arrived up on the scene to find someone wearing a helmet and visor, acting like a maniac, and damaging property. (When the person was later charged, the estimate was that he’d done $300,000 worth of damage, which seems high.) The accused vandal and police assailant turned out to be a fourth-year student at the University of Chicago, Charles Thomas. The cops of course did not know he was a student.
When the cops told Thomas to drop the bar, he went gonzo and then walked toward them, brandishing the bar. As the student newspaper Chicago Maroon reports in the paper edition (this isn’t in any online report I can find):
Bodycam and dashboard footage released by the University shows officers confronting Thomas. As he walks toward them, an officer can be heard shouting, “Put down the weapon!” while Thomas shouts “What the fuck do you want?” and “Fuck you.” About a minute after the officers arrived on the scene, Thomas begins running rapidly toward the individual wearing the body camera, who commanded Thomas again to drop the weapon, and then fired a single shot into his shoulder.”
Here’s that video. As you can see, Thomas was wounded (I think they aimed for the shoulder to get him to drop the weapon), but he was still screaming “Fuck you!” and “Fuck you all!” as he lay wounded on the ground.
Here’s a video from the police car dashcam:
Taken into custody and sent to Northwestern Hospital, where he’s recovering, Thomas has been charged with three felonies: two counts for criminal property damage and one for aggravated assault of a police officer. The indictment also includes two misdemeanors involving criminal damage to property. His bond has been set at $15,000, with the judge ordering that Thomas be kept at home with “electronic monitoring”. (This is from the paper version of the Maroon, whose articles aren’t all online.) The judge said she gave Thomas a break because he had a clean record.
The response has been surprising to me (well, maybe not that surprising): the students are saying the police shooting was unnecessary, that the cops should be disarmed; that this was clearly a psychotic episode or some symptom of mental illness that should have been treated by the University and, accordingly, by the cops on the scene; that this demonstrates the racism of the University police (Thomas is reportedly half black and half Japanese), and even that the University should pay reparations to Thomas! They also demonstrated at a University event. Here’s a video of that below. The protest was in favor of unionization of graduate students, but turned into a demonstration against the shooting incident:
When the group arrived at I-House, the activists gathered around the steps on South Dorchester Avenue, around the corner from the building’s main entrance. As more and more people joined the protest, speakers repeatedly called on activists to “Make some noise,” eliciting cheers from the crowd directed toward the I-House windows.
Meanwhile, inside the I-House Assembly Hall, moderator and Institute of Politics (IOP) Director David Axelrod opened the forum by asking Zimmer and Boyer for an update on Tuesday’s shooting, which he said he believed to be the first incident of its kind in recent memory.
“I don’t know if there’s anything that new to say. This is a tragic incident for all those involved. We were very focused on getting what information that we did have out as quickly as possible in terms of making the videos that we did have available…and there’s a mandatory investigation on the use of firearms from our police,” Zimmer said.
Axelrod also asked Zimmer how he felt about the University’s response to the shooting, Zimmer again emphasized the UCPD firearms investigation. Boyer added that spring quarter can be a high pressure time for undergraduates as they try to find summer internships and organize their coursework.
Chants began outside the western window of the Assembly Hall about five minutes after the start of the event, making it difficult for attendees to hear the speakers. GSU organizers said they were shouting, “Bargain now,” though some chants sounded like “Fire him now” from inside.
The reaction of the students and protestors was instantaneous and, to my mind, not well thought out. Here are the questions:
1.) Was Thomas dealt with properly? As far as I can see, the police acted properly in this incident (this is just my judgment from the videos and reports). They asked Thomas to drop his weapon several times, and he refused. He then charged the cop brandishing his iron bar. What was the cop to do? Take the blow—or use judo? He couldn’t have used a Taser, as University cops don’t carry them (maybe they should). Everyone knows that if a cop is pointing a gun at you and asks you to drop your weapon or do something, you do it.
Further, the cops shot not to kill, but to disable him: a shoulder shot was probably designed to make Thomas drop the weapon. He is now out of intensive care. I’m sure the cops could have shot him in the torso, which is where you’re supposed to aim to fully take someone down, but they didn’t. [JAC: See my note in the comments; even if they did shoot to take him down, Thomas could have killed the cop with a single blow of that iron bar.]
Now, is there anything else they could have done to stop him? Perhaps a Taser would have worked had the cops had one, but I’m not sure whether they can be deployed when someone decides to charge you at such short range. At any rate rate, that question is academic. Could they have tackled him from behind? I don’t know; I don’t think that’s the usual procedure when someone has a metal bar that could do serious damage. I will await reports on normal police procedure, but for now it seems that a shoulder shot was the proper and most humane response to somebody acting psychotic and trying to attack you.
2.) Was Thomas mentally ill? A lot of the student response to the shooting centers on the claim that Thomas was clearly mentally ill or had some sort of psychotic break, and you must treat people differently when they are mentally ill. Yes, you should do that after the suspect is neutralized, but not necessarily when he’s doing what Thomas did. In fact, we have no idea whether Thomas was mentally ill. The Maroon reports that Thomas’s mother cites a family history of bipolar disorder, but also that he himself had shown no symptoms of it:
Kathleen Thomas said she has never seen anything like the behavior her son Charles Thomas, a fourth-year in the College, displayed Tuesday night, but there is a history of bipolar disorder in their family.
“That was not the Charles I know. All through him growing up and his teenage years, I’ve only seen him get slightly angry a couple times,” she said. “He never had to go to the principal’s office ever, never had any run-ins with the law.”
She had not previously seen any signs of bipolar disorder from Thomas; she said that she has been paying close attention because it can start manifesting around this age.
Now she’s wondering if it may explain his behavior Tuesday night.
She suspects that stress because of B.A. thesis deadlines may have been a factor contributing to his mental health episode.
“He’s always put a lot of pressure on himself to be successful.”
She said Thomas has been working hard to finish a thesis for his political science major, and he probably has not been sleeping much.
But something must have made him snap, she said.
Much has been made of the cop saying, in the first video, that the guy was “mental” (they of course didn’t know he was a student). But that isn’t an on-the-spot diagnosis of mental illness; it refers to the fact that Thomas was in a frenzy. All of us have heard the word “mental” used to refer to someone acting crazy, but not necessarily afflicted with a mental illness. Given that Thomas had no history of this behavior, I think it’s at least as likely that he either snapped, as his mother said, or that he was on some kind of drug that made him act erratically.
There is, however, one statement by a friend of Thomas’s, reported in the Maroon:
A friend of Thomas told protesters at a UChicago United protest on Friday that Thomas sought help from the University’s mental health services and was “referred off campus.”
The University of course cannot confirm this, as health issues are confidential. But the article adds, and this is indeed the case:
The Student Counseling Service (SCS) website suggests that, for counseling needs beyond “immediate needs,” students are referred to an independent counseling provider.
“If any student requires more support, they will be referred to counseling outside of SCS,” the website reads. It’s not clear if Thomas ever received outside treatment.
It’s also not clear whether, even if he sought mental health service, that it was for some kind of bipolar disorder as opposed to the many other issues for which students seek counseling.
In this respect, the Maroon‘s front page paper story on this episode, composed by five reporters, was irresponsible, for the headlines were these:
UCPD Shoots Fourth-Year Charles Thomas (sub-headline; Protests continue Friday after UCPD shot a student who was having a manic episode. He ran toward the cops with a metal rod.
But it’s unclear if he was having a manic episode unless “manic” is meant in the sense of “frenzied”. The usual meaning of “manic,” however, and one followed in the story, is that he was in one phase of bipolar disorder. In the Maroon‘s paper issue on the report, a postdoctoral fellow, Guy Emerson Mount, who teaches one of Thomas’s classes, says “. . . obviously he had a mental health episode as everyone can see on the film. . “. But that’s not obvious to me. It is just as “obvious” that he was on some drug. Only further diagnosis or blood tests can distinguish between these hypotheses.
3.) Did the cops shoot Thomas because he was a person of color? There is no evidence for this. For one thing, we don’t know the race of the shooting cop; many of the U of C police are African American. More important, Thomas was wearing a visor, and you simply can’t discern his race in the video. Have a look at the bodycam; my guess would have been that Thomas is white. The claim that this shooting was motivated by racism holds no water.
Now, what about the student and faculty reaction? It was unseemly, accusatory, and unreflective. The three accusations above, for instance, are not supportable with the evidence at hand. Nevertheless, a consortium called UChicago United (which has beefed before about the University’s declaration that it would discipline students who disrupted University events, issued another series of demands. Here’s the organization’s description from the Maroon’s op-ed by the group:
UChicago United is a coalition of multicultural student organizations, including Organization of Black Students (OBS), PanAsia, MEChA, Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS), and African Caribbean Students Association (UChicago). UC United was formed to make the University of Chicago campus more inclusive for students of marginalized backgrounds and identities.
- We demand the University disarm the UCPD and reduce the jurisdiction of the Department’s patrol.
- We demand community control over UCPD. This shall include an all-elected Independent Review Committee with decision-making powers. No more Board of Trustees control of UCPD!
- We demand UCPD compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. We demand University support legislation that would hold the UCPD accountable to the Freedom of Information Act.
- We demand UChicago fully fund mental health services, including responders trained in trauma-informed crisis intervention. In addition, the University policy on involuntary leaves of absence must cease immediately. Deterring students from seeking out on-campus mental health services is harmful and not effective.
- We demand community safety for all, from community members to students on the South Side of Chicago.
The full statement of this group (and others), as well as the list of demands, which goes beyond the following, is here.
This is a kneejerk and gut response. I have no idea about the Freedom of Information Act, but I doubt that the students would want the police disarmed if they themselves were attacked by someone with a gun or metal bar while the police had to stand by unarmed. While I’m against private ownership of guns except, perhaps, for target shooting, I’m not against police having guns, although their need for guns would be less if, as in the UK, private gun ownership was severely restricted. And how can you demand “community safety” for all when our University is on the South Side of Chicago, a place notorious for gun violence? (There were 12 shootings just between March 30 and April 1.) As for mental health services, as far as I know the University has made huge strides in assuring they’re available to students, including a 24/7 crisis manager for mental health problems and good psychiatric care. I’m sure there’s room for improvement, but remember that the demand above is in response to an unproven claim that Thomas’s frenzy was due to mental illness, and also that he wasn’t adequately treated by the University for it. There is no evidence for either of those claims.
Guy Emerson Mount, who has been focused on reparations he says are due to blacks from the University of Chicago, also calls for reparations to Thomas for being shot. As the paper edition of the Maroon reports:
Postdoctoral fellow Guy Emerson Mount, a former grad student organizer, spoke about his student, demanding reparations in wake of the shooting.
“On Tuesday of last week, he was in class. On Tuesday of this week, he was shot by the campus police at the University of Chicago,” Mount said. “Charles was shot under a system of punitive justice which says that if you break a law of the state, yo must be punished for it. Restorative justice says we must help people who have been harmed and must bring together people who are responsible for harm that has happened. In this case, the University of Chicago has harmed Charles. The University of Chicago needs to make reparations to Charles and his family for the harm they have caused.”
That’s truly bizarre. No punishment? In this case, Thomas was shot because he was threatening police; he would not have been shot had he dropped his iron bar. And “punishment” is necessary for good reasons: keep dangerous people out of society, deter others from committing similar acts, and so on. If Thomas is truly mentally ill, the proper response would be treatment, not incarceration. But he’s still responsible for paying for the damage he caused. Perhaps the “reparations” that, according to Mount, should go to Thomas, should then be given to those whose property he damaged!
Finally, three faculty members and a postdoctoral scholar from departments of social services (the usual locus of such reactions) wrote an op-ed in the Maroon whose thesis is largely that Thomas was mentally ill and that “police are inadequate and inappropriate first responders in the case of mental health crises.” (They cite another example of someone who was mentally ill being shot by Chicago police last month). The writers first express sorrow for the incident, but it’s directed solely to Thomas, whose shooting, they aver, was clearly the University’s fault:
To this student and to all those who love them, we send this unequivocal message: We are deeply sorry for what happened. We wish you the easiest possible recovery and we are terribly dismayed that the University so badly failed to create a safe environment for you at a time of vulnerability. We cannot imagine the level of trauma this must have caused to you and your loved ones. We send you a message of care and support during what we know will be an ongoing period of recovery.
And then, asserting—again without evidence—that this was a mental health crisis inappropriately dealt with by the University, they have the temerity to say this (my emphasis):
As we write, many factual details regarding this incident remain unclear. As more details emerge, many in the observing public may focus on adjudicating the facts of the case and whether the shooting was justified. As tends to be the case in police shooting incidents, there will be divergent interpretations of police accounts and body camera footage. We argue that many of these details—whether the student charged the officer, whether the officers ordered him to drop the pipe he was holding—are in fact irrelevant to the undisputed facts and the crucial concerns they raise for our community. Three officers approached a civilian who was not armed with a deadly weapon, and they fired a gun at him, endangering his life.
This level of logic is unworthy of University faculty and scholars. They note in bold that the shooting may have been justified, but then the rest of the letter, including the last sentence, clearly say that the shooting was not justified. And if a brandished iron bar isn’t a “deadly weapon,” then we’re truly in fantasyland.
At this point, the proper response is to wait for more facts before we figure out whether any blame falls on the University or the police. For, as the data at hand show, there is no evidence that the police acted improperly, were racist, knew that Thomas was mentally ill (and we still don’t know that), or that the University is somehow deficient in mental health care. I am surprised by the immediate, kneejerk, and accusatory response of the students and some of the faculty, as well as by the accusations of police racism, but of course that’s what we can expect these days.