Students continue to blame U of C shooting on failures of the University police and poor mental health care for students

April 11, 2018 • 10:30 am

As I reported a few days ago, a University of Chicago student went on a rampage one evening last week, breaking windows and bashing cars with a metal bar. He was wearing a hat and visor covering his face. The University of Chicago police were called, and ordered the student, who was stalking the alley shouting “fuck you!”, to drop the bar. They asked him this several times. Instead of dropping the weapon, he eventually charged directly at a university cop, and the cop shot him in the shoulder. The student, fourth-year Charles Thomas, survived, but is in the hospital guarded by police, facing two felony and two misdemeanor charges.

Why Thomas went on the rampage is unclear. His roommate says that Thomas sought mental health services at the University for academic stress, and they referred him to outside help, as is their custom when more than a few sessions are required. But all we have is one person’s word for that, because, of course, the University can’t comment. Thomas’s mother says there’s a history of bipolar disorder in the family, but that Thomas showed no symptoms.

All of this has been transformed by student protestors into the claim that the University failed Thomas by not providing him with the proper help, and that he certainly was bipolar (see below). But of course we know no such thing. To me it’s possible he could have been on drugs.

Bodycam video by the police (see my report) shows that the cop acted according to protocol: he backed away, warned Thomas to drop the weapon several times, and did not fire until Thomas charged him. That bar could have killed the cop, so this seems like reasonable self defense. The cops didn’t know that the assailant was a student, nor (despite student accusations of racism) that he was biracial (Asian/African-American), for he was wearing a visor that obscured his face.

Nevertheless, there have been several protests on campus over the last week, most of them indicting the University for “failing” Thomas. The implication is that they should have given him proper mental health care that would have prevented his rampage.  But there’s no indication that he was “failed” by student care: Thomas was referred, presumably after being seen, to an outside therapist (again, we’re not sure if any of this happened), and that’s the usual protocol. It’s then Thomas’s responsibility to book that therapist, and not the University’s to ensure that he does.  What happened is tragic, with a young man losing control of his life, but I don’t see that the University or its police bear responsibility for that. If he is mentally ill, I hope he gets help, and I’m pretty sure he will.

The students continue to beef and protest en masse, however, and I’m not sure why. It appears that they want to exculpate Thomas (perhaps because he’s a “person of color”, or just “one of us”, meaning a student?), and instead want to blame everyone but Thomas for what happened. Not only that, but they also want to parade their own feelings, saying that they’re “heartbroken.” This is archetypal victimhood culture, as seen in one student’s letter to the student newspaper (the Chicago Maroon): “Mental health and the UCPD shooting“.  It begins with several tropes: emphasizing the student’s own feelings (the cop, of course, is ignored, and there’s not much empathy for Thomas himself). We also see the usual lists of demands sent out—demands made in almost complete ignorance of why Thomas did what he died:

From the letter (my emphasis):

Agony and rage just as well describe our campus’s reaction to this incident. Students have risen in protest; they have sent out demands. The pressing questions surging through campus vary in scope: Some argue as to whether the officer’s action, in the very moment of things, was at all justified. Others question why the UCPD is given as much power as a municipal police department. [JAC: Because this is what the students and parents want!] We ask these questions because we are confused as to how the very organization meant to protect us has, in fact, endangered one of us. We are hurt, perhaps because we knew Thomas personally, but maybe also because this shooting falls in tandem with the national problem of gun control which has already claimed so many victims. We are heartbroken.

The logic here is bizarre. People are asking, for example, why “the very organization meant to protect us has, in fact, endangered one of us.” The answer is simple. That “organization”, the University police, acted in self defense when “one of us” (the student) charged him brandishing a metal bar. Any police officer would have done the same, and it makes not a whit of difference that the alleged assailant was a student. The letter continues:

In the past week since the shooting, more and more of Thomas’s story has come to light. Thomas’s roommate, Dan Lastres, would reveal that Thomas, buckling under academic stress, had sought help from our very own Student Counseling Service (SCS) weeks prior, only to be referred elsewhere. Friends and family, including Thomas’s mother, expressed bewilderment at Thomas’s behavior, since he had never before acted in such a way. His mother would also disclose that their family has a history of bipolar disorder. Altogether, it became clear that Thomas acted not out of malice, but of a manic episode brought about by overwhelming stress.

Here the narrative moves from a report of bipolar disorder in the family (and none ever shown by Thomas himself) into a clear “manic episode”.  That’s far from clear. And even if it was a manic episode, the police had no way of knowing that, nor would they necessarily have behaved differently had they known this was the case. The officer who shot Thomas is reported to have had extensive training in dealing with people having mental health issues.

Finally, there’s this from the same letter:

. . . Charles Thomas was let down by the University in many ways, but most egregiously in the access to the mental health resources he so needed.

The catch-22 of our generation seems to be that if we speak out about the necessities of things like mental health resources, or gun control, or curbing police brutality, we are labeled as hypersensitive. Yet, if we ignore these issues, we are the ones who get hurt, which Thomas’s case shows quite literally. More must be done for us—let the painful irony of a student being endangered by his own University speak for itself.

No, there is no evidence that he was let down by the University. He was reported to have been seen and, presumably after assessment, referred to an outside carer. I’m not labeling the student who wrote this letter as hypersensitive. Rather, I am appalled by her willingness to point fingers in the absence of information. That’s ignorance, not hypersensitivity. But there is a sense of entitlement behind her—and the protestors’—reaction. It is indeed possible that the University needs to upgrade or alter its mental health system, but I know that they’ve devoted considerable time and resources to doing this. The fact is that no matter how good such a system is, it can’t prevent every unfortunate outcome of mental illness—especially if the afflicted person fails to take advantage of recommended care.

There’s another student “op-ed” letter in the same issue of the Maroon. While it’s a bit more reasonable, in that it at least admits that the attacked cop had the right to defend himself, it still makes insupportable statements. Here’s an excerpt from “A preventable tragedy“, written by a third-year student:

Still, the fact is that a man was shot during a mental health crisis. People should not be shot during a bipolar episode. There have rightly been protests on campus for days now.

The protesters are right that what took place was a failing of police. The failing was by the police as a whole, who did not deal with the situation in an organized manner. They allowed an armed man to advance on one of their officers until he had to fire out of self-defense. UCPD has not, to the best of my knowledge, discharged a weapon in over thirty years before that night. That is good evidence that they tend to know what they are doing in terms of the use of deadly force. But that this officer needed to fire to protect himself from someone armed with a metal pole, seems, in retrospect, entirely unnecessary and wrong. [JAC: what else was he supposed to do?]

Again we see that this is not only “a mental health crisis” but “a bipolar episode.” Have the students not learned to avoid rushing to judgments backed by no evidence? And “a failing of police”? Watch the video (first link above) and tell me if you think the police behaved irresponsibly. The statement, “[the police] allowed an armed man to advance on one of their officers until he had to fire out of self-defense” is risible. The police allowed the man to advance? How were they supposed to stop him save with words, which they tried? This is a prime example of blaming the victim—the cop—for something that was the student’s responsibility.

I’ve pretty much given up on the newspaper itself to editorialize sensibly about these issues. The Maroon not only hasn’t said a word in favor of free speech, nor uttered a peep about Steve Bannon’s scheduled appearance here, which prompted faculty, students, and alumni to call for his deplatforming, but they’ve also remained totally silent on the shooting. It would seem to me that the paper should be pointing out the rush to judgment and the unconscionable blaming of police. But all we get is crickets. The paper’s editors are pusillanimous, and that’s a word that’s too kind.

59 thoughts on “Students continue to blame U of C shooting on failures of the University police and poor mental health care for students

  1. “Metal pole”? Pole vaulting? A candy-striped barber pole? A statue of Lech Walesa? It was a crowbar, a deadly weapon, not a “pole”. This is positively Nixonian.

    1. Police officer to attacker: “A thousand apologies for hitting and damaging your metal pole with my head.”

  2. I am very critical of many of the high profile police shootings that have made the news, but this looks like a reasonable shooting to me. I heard that the University police do not carry tasers, but even if they did, this would not have been the time to use them.

    I base this on my 22 years in law enforcement.

    1. Agreed. Most police shootings that make the news seem to be unnecessary. This one was not like the others, IMO.

  3. There was a very similar shooting of a man shortly after this one and they had the body camera as well. The guy was attacking the police with a screwdriver and was told several times to stop and drop the screwdriver. He did not and was shot. It all happened very fast and was totally justified. Now, I do not know if this person was mentally ill or on drugs or drunk or what. So what are we to do, cover some kind of special training for police to handle the guy coming at them with a screwdriver or worry about the lack of mental health care, drug control or how to deal with drunks. Oh, they also had tried three times to taser this person but it did not work. Did not penetrate the clothing.

    Many years ago this country closed down all the mental health hospitals every where. We had new drugs to handle the mental illness and they simply let all of them out. If you are old enough you will remember this.

    1. Oh, they also had tried three times to taser this person but it did not work. Did not penetrate the clothing.

      Which is why CS-spray is distributed to all non-trainee coppers, while only a few volunteer for gun training, and on any particular night even fewer of the gun-trained officers are actually in a vehicle with a gun locker, and then have to get the codes to open the locker from a senior officer on duty in the control room.
      A great advert for whatever is the name of Tazer (TM)’s manufacturer.

      We had new drugs to handle the mental illness

      Yes – the drugs are CS spray and/ or gas. And blunt force trauma to the head.

    2. I remember it well. It was the Reagan administration. It wasn’t done because there were drugs available (there weren’t); it was a “question of “Freedom”” (this “freedom” to be a homeless patient deprived of services for no good reason was often talked about in republican circles in those days) PLUS of course Ronnie and his repubs didn’t actually want to spend government money on such patients – not even for such drugs as were available then. Especially when they had to go to such tiresomely illegal measures to get a little cash to buy guns for their beloved “contras”.

      There are those who choose not to remember that the Reagan administration was one of the most corrupt in American history – over 120 members charged, indicted and investigated….If one lives long enough one gets to see history rhyming itself.

      1. This was not a good policy of Reagan administration. However, I wonder why, every time this problem is mentioned, the blame for lack of mental care facilities is put on Reagan and – case closed. An excuse for 4 decades and counting. What is the problem to build new facilities?

    3. Yes, they did that in Australia too. We had institutions with large sprawling grounds.

      They were closed for a variety of reasons, including economics and a bad wrap for ‘institutions’ back then. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

      But they were a valuable resource.

      After they let them out, or threw them out, the homeless rate went up and police shootings went up too, until they revamped their training.

      I remember well, very well.

  4. “… We are confused as to how the very organization meant to protect us has…” you know, actually protected us. And we’re especially confused about what protection entails.

    Yes, I see the confusion. Maybe they need some basic physics education, like iron bars swung with force can harm the human body.

    Glen Davidson

    1. Right. The police officer is not wearing a sign that says, “Hit me anytime and as much as you want to with a metal bar. I can’t get enough of it!”

  5. An assumption underlying the demands is that mental-health treatment is effective and would have prevented the student acting that way.

    So that really so? I’m far from an expert, but I gather that mental health issues are often hard to treat at all effectively.

    1. Medications can work very well, but, getting the right stuff at the right time is an issue, and then maintaining it is another.

    2. You are right. Especially if the patient does not seek help or take what is prescribed to him, which unfortunately often happens with mental disorders.

  6. University of Chicago medical school has a very fine psychiatry department that includes clinical (in and out patient) services. Yet, school policy is to refer students outside if they require more treatment (I know this for a fact and know several members of the department). By all accounts I’ve seen, the police acted professionally in this shoot. I think there is a fair argument that the student was poorly served by the University and that if he received better treatment, this could have been avoided.

      1. My comment is based on my personal experience and knowledge of the U. of Chicago department of psychiatry. The head of student counseling services is a psychologist. While very well qualified, he must refer people who require psychiatric care to other resources. Those do not include the University’s own department. My wife is a psychiatrist and gets referrals from University o Chicago often.

        1. That is not an answer. You have presented no evidence that Thomas really is bipolar, or that he really had a manic episode. We have only unsubstantiated rumors about him seeking help and about what help was offered or available. Conclusion jumping.

          1. I’m not qualified to determine if the student is bipolar or not and I never attempted to do so. If he had any experience with University of Chicago student mental health services, then he was not seen by any of the high quality mental health experts they have in their own department. The students protesting the shooting are also protesting the lack of adequate mental health services that may have prevented this. The news reported that the student in question had sought mental health services from the university and was referred out.

    1. I’m pretty sure the “outside” referral can include the U of C psychiatry services. All it means is that student healthcare fees don’t cover long-term counseling, so you have to pay out of other insurance.

      1. That is not what I hear from several faculty and residents. No one had any prior experience with this student. The ones i spoke to feel that is not right.

  7. I see an infantilization of the attacker, and by extension, the mentally ill in general. The letter writers seem to assume that because of his condition, he would not be willing or able to harm the cop.

  8. The students seem to be under the impression that bad things should never happen and if they do there is always someone else who is responsible. Sometimes good people do bad things and there are consequences.

  9. Mentally ill or on drugs may well be the same thing in some cases.

    One of the reason I support more research into better understanding of addiction, drug use, etc. is because of what is called the “self medication hypothesis”.

  10. At this point, I don’t think these people have any other choice. From an ideological perspective, the position of the ideological cluster in which they claim membership is that all police shootings — save for a man pointing a gun and who is at least middle class and has no record of mental health issues — are unjustified and, more critically, indicative of horrible abuses like systemic racism and a violent culture far too accepting of guns.

    I don’t think these protesters go through any such thought process; rather, this is what their ideology dictates to be true. If the circumstances are anything less than a situation in which the person who is shot is undeniably threatening to kill another person, the rules of their group dictate that the shooting must be unjustified and, by extension, indicative of all the abhorrent institutional injustices they claim to be present in society. All of this is a tactic (of the ideological framework, and not consciously known by the protesters) to push as many events as possible into a specific narrative, through which they justify the group’s continued protestations about x subject.

    Of course, none of this is unique. Sufficiently committed libertarians will find a way to connect an unwanted economic result to overbearing government regulation or a need to privatize services, and evangelical Christians will find a way to connect any sufficiently destructive natural disaster to a perceived religious issue like society’s acceptance of homosexuality.

      1. I’d be more inclined to listen to an evangelical Christian at that point and blame it on the gays. At least there are more of them walking the earth.

  11. Reading the letters it appears these students are saying knew Thomas had mental health issues and was prone to violence and didn’t inform U of C administration or campus security.
    Seems the blame is not only Thomas’s but the student accomplices as well.

  12. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families and the onset tends to be between 16 & 25, so I’m inclined to believe that he does indeed have it.

    Tasers don’t always work, so a person with a weapon has no right to expect white-glove treatment when they refuse to obey police orders.

    Them’s the breaks. It’s a shame that mentally ill people come into contact with police so often, but behaving erratically is a symptom and it’s the kind of thing police are expected to intervene in. Psychiatrists don’t work the night shift or go on house calls (or street calls in this case). Police are the default.

  13. The Maroon letters cited present a virtually clinical example of the campus victimhood culture. I am surprised that no letters have (yet) blamed the University of Chicago for Charles Thomas’ seeming psychotic break: it could, after all, have been triggered by microaggressions, or by his exposure in class to disturbing words without sufficient trigger warning.

    1. The difference is that in the UK the police don’t usually deal with a civilian population with access to guns. When police are called to confront a violent person they have to assume the worst.

      1. I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Are you arguing that, since guns are common in the US, police in the US who are responding to a person wielding a metal bar must ‘assume the worst’, i.e., that the violent person also has a gun?

        It seems to me that whatever methods used by UK police in similar scenarios (batons, tasers, pepper spray?) are worth a try in situations like this one at UChicago.

        1. Cops need to be armed in the USA because so many criminals are.

          Undescribed methods might be better? In undefined ways I suppose. Still, telling a man being charged at by a violent attacker with a crowbar “do something unspecific” leaves something to be desired.

          1. I didn’t claim that cops in the US don’t need to be armed, as your comment suggests. My claim was that whatever seems to be working in similar situations in other countries, like the UK, would probably also work in this particular scenario. Having done a bit of research now, cops in the UK do typically use non-lethal methods like those that I mentioned to handle situations like this. I do not see why such methods shouldn’t be attempted at first in the US, leaving gunfire as a last resort. This happened after all in an alley between what appear to be apartment buildings. The police officer could have easily missed his target, hitting an occupant of one of those buildings, a pedestrian, or a fellow police officer. Why not attempt to subdue this person with non-lethal methods first?

            1. Just congenially curious – who do you expect ought to become a police officer? Is it something you would consider doing?

    2. Stage one is to try to shout the assailant into submission.
      Stage two is to threaten CS-spray.
      Stage three is to use the CS-spray in the general direction of the assailant. Normally enough gets onto them to cause enough distress that enough coppers can get up close to go to: Stage 4 – a full CS-spray can in the face coupled with mobbing him (it’s almost always a him) to the ground and webbing strap restraints on hands arms legs and feet. Spit hood if he’s a spitter.

      1. He had a mask or face shield and was quite enthusiastic.

        Your method leaves a high probability of a bashed in head.

        Most people don’t want their head bashed in.

        1. It’s not “my method”. And the cops do use it. Of course, they’re never alone, so “enthusiastic” people are going to get hit from two directions. And part of the point of using CS spray is that the droplets swirl around in the inhaled air and get in nose and mouth – which is quite effective at incapacitation.
          If use of effective “face masks” becomes common, then the police will up their game. They already carry crash helmets and shorty shields in regular patrol cars, and going out on duty without wearing a stab-proof vest etc is a disciplinary offence. So we’ll just see them armour up more.

  14. Mr Thomas should be grateful the policeman in question acted so properly. He owes him his life. How many policemen in the US would not have emptied their magazine?
    Backed off, got charged, one shot (everybody appears to think it was a ‘lucky’ shot, but could it not have been the shot of a good marksman?), assailant disarmed, but not fatally wounded. It is difficult to ask for a better outcome, I’d say.
    Whether bipolar or not, or drugs or not, is irrelevant in the actual situation. And our psychologists will be the first to admit that it is, with our present knowledge, not obvious to predict which psychologically tormented person actually will run amok.
    The protests are neither here nor there.
    I hope that Mr Thomas , when recovered, will thank the cop for his restraint.

  15. They all need mental health care, IMO. For sever cognitive disfunction. 😉

    But I was struck by this:
    ‘they also want to parade their own feelings, saying that they’re “heartbroken.”’
    Ever notice what a common trope this is? Any time some incident happens, typically in a small town, such as someone getting shot or falling off his bike, reporters invariably say “The peaceful little community of Deadburg is in a state of shock”. I call bullshit on this. 99% of the population don’t know anyone involved, haven’t heard of the incident, and couldn’t care less anyway.

    It goes along with the most stupid question inevitably asked by reporters, “How did you feel?”. What news value can that possibly have? And it’s personally intrusive. My all-time favourite riposte to that one was given by a well-dressed female passenger of an aircraft that had just made an emergency landing – “What do you think?” – and she walked off.


    1. We get that all the time in the UK: whenever something happens somewhere, we are told by a TV news reporter that the inhabitants “are struggling to come to terms with” whatever it was.

      Like you, I suspect that most of them couldn’t care less.

  16. Why the face shield?

    He was looking for trouble and found it.

    He seemed to be out to cause harm.

    I wonder how the criticizers would behave if someone came at them with an steel bar.

    And the cops can’t run away, if they did and someone else got smashed, they would be in big trouble.

  17. May I suggest that it is not the university that failed this student, rather it was the university students who failed him. Why did none of them notice that he needed mental health intervention and see that he got it? Who knew him better than those who whom he sat in classes every day?

  18. This group is interesting. We are a big believer in mental health reform and cover it during many of our Podcasts. We started a Podcast/blog (through WordPress) that has reached over 30,000 people called Policing in Black and White. We DO NOT make money from this. We are TWO FORMER COPS who host a show for both sides of the community. We tell it like it is. If a cop is wrong, we nail him. We stick up for citizens of any skin color if they have been wronged. We also supports police who are in the right as well. We use our real stories as officers to communicate to the public. Both hosts were involved in deadly shootings as well. Feel free to listen and use our comment page!

    1. I’m allowing this one comment because the show sounds interesting, but what you are doing here is advertising your website without making any comment relevant to the discussion. I’ll let the readers decide if they want to listen to it, but this is the ast time you’ll be touting your wares on this site.

Leave a Reply