UCPD officer shoots student suffering mental health crisis

Screenshot footage from a police vehicle webcam of University of Chicago student Charles Thomas. – Courtesy of University of Chicago

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff Writer

“Mental. He’s a mental,” said an officer of the University of Chicago Police, presumably to dispatch, as he pulled into the alley between Woodlawn and Kimbark avenues, south of and parallel to 53rd Street at 10:13 p.m. Tuesday, April 3.

He and other UCPD officers were responding to reports of a burglary, and Charles Thomas, 21, was smashing windows with a metal bar.

“Hey, stop there! Stop there!” said the officer as he got out of his vehicle.

The officer raised his gun and ordred Thomas to drop the weapon

The officer backed up as Thomas advanced, asked what he wanted and cursed him. Another officer said to tase him.

“Sir, I need you to drop that weapon!” said the officer.

Thomas charged the officer. “Don’t come at me! Don’t come at me!” yelled the officer.

Then he shot Thomas in the left shoulder.

Thomas fell to the ground, screamed in agony and cursed the UCPD officers again and again.

Another UCPD officer kicked away the bar and ordered Thomas to put his hands behind his back. He was handcuffed.

Thomas said he would see them in hell.
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Hyde Park resident Karl Fogel saw Thomas before UCPD arrived. “He was moving fast, screaming and whacking everything around him as hard as he could with abandon—bicycles, walls, dumpsters, fences,” he said. “His motions were extremely unpredictable, both in terms of what direction he went and what he hit with the pipe.”

Fogel said, “He was very obviously not in control of himself.”

While mindful of the national debate about unjustified law enforcement shootings, Fogel does not think manually subduing Thomas was an option: “Anyone who actually saw Thomas on that night would not have wanted to try that. He was very dangerous, and he was armed with something that could easily kill or seriously injure anyone who came near him.”

Thomas was transported in serious condition to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Streeterville (251 E. Huron St.); his condition was later upgraded to stable.

The U. of C. has pressed charges against Thomas.

He has been charged with one felony count of aggravated assault with a weapon on a peace officer, punishable with up to three years in a state prison; two felony counts of $300 to $10,000 criminal property damage, a charge that carries one to three years in prison and $25,000 in fines; and two misdemeanor counts of criminal property damage less than $300, a charge that carries a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Cook County 6th Subcircuit Judge Stephanie Miller set Thomas’ bond at $15,000. Press reports indicate that he is still at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in police custody and receiving medical and psychiatric care. Kathleen Thomas, his mother, has been quoted as saying that bipolar disorder runs in the family and questioning why her son was shot when police knew he was having a mental health episode.

The U. of C. administration and students immediately responded to the shooting.

A spokeswoman said the U. of C. Department of Safety and Security would conduct an investigation of the incident and that the UCPD officer has been placed on mandatory administrative leave pending the investigation’s outcome.

“Maintaining our community’s safety, security and well-being is of paramount importance,” U. of C. President Robert J. Zimmer said in a statement.

U. of C. Student Body President Calvin Cottrell said the shooting showed that campus systems and policies, namely counseling services and safety procedures, had failed and urged transparency from UCPD going forward.

“With systemic problems in how police departments nationwide interact with marginalized people, now is the time for the University of Chicago Police Department to make sure it is following best practices for de-escalation and community outreach,” Cottrell said, promising that Student Government would have its own investigation and public response, particularly into the UCPD Independent Review Board.

UChicago Student Action (UCSA), a campus social justice organization, issued a scathing online statement, responding particularly to media reports that the student was experiencing an acute mental health crisis when he was shot.

“The UCPD made it perfectly clear that this University’s treatment of mental health boils down either to coerced leaves of absence or to violence,” it said. UCSA denounced as unacceptable the UCPD for its use of violent force and being “unwilling to deescalate its policing, especially in cases of mental health” and the University itself, which “funds and enforces the policing and segregation of the South Side in the first place.”

On Friday, April 6, UChicago United, a coalition of multicultural student organizations, organized another protest in the Main Quadrangle. They presented the administration a letter undersigned by numerous campus organizations demanding that the U. of C. disarm and reduce the funding and jurisdiction of the UCPD and increase its transparency.

Mental health-related demands are that the U. of C. “fully fund mental health resources” by hiring more multiculturally sensitive counselors, increasing emergency walk-in hours, ending forced leaves of absence for students experiencing mental health issues and hiring responders “trained in crisis intervention and trauma-informed mediation.” They further demanded that the Independent Review Committee, which reviews complaints brought against the UCPD, be wholly independent of the University with an elected membership.

Scores of students met at 12:30 p.m. in front of Rosenwald Hall (1101 E. 58th St.), site of the undergraduate admissions office, before marching to the administrative building, Levi Hall, 5801 S. Ellis Ave, chanting “Robbie Zimmer, you can’t hide: We can see your racist side” and “Care not cops.”

Daniel Lastres, who identified himself as Thomass’ roommate, said Thomas had suffered a broken shoulder blade and collapsed lung and described his level of allowed contact with family as “extremely limited.”

“Anyone, student or faculty, on this campus will tell you about the intense amount of emotional stress put on individuals to succeed,” said Lastres, who said that Thomas visited the U. of C.’s Student Counseling Services at the end of the winter quarter and was referred to an off-campus counselor. Lastres lambasted the criminal charges filed against Thomas, saying he was a person who needs “our care, not our criminalization.”

“They gunned him down, and now they’re punishing him for it,” said Anjali Dhillon, an organizer with UCSA. “There’s no remorse, no accountability or regret by UCPD or this administration.” Dhillon said she, as a person of color who struggles from mental illness, took the events as a “clear message” that the U. of C. does not care about students like her: “It does not invest in us. It does not prioritize us. And if we are visibly ill, then it will shoot us. It would rather protect private property at all costs instead of its students.”

Hyde Park resident LaKeisha Hamilton said the UCPD did not carry guns when she attended local public schools and urged them to de-arm. “Yes, the violence in the city has changed, has escalated, but who exactly were they giving guns for?” she asked. “If you’re so apologetic that you hit one of your own, who exactly was that gun intended for?”

Tunisia Tai, a U. of C. student studying race and ethnic studies, said she had been followed and interrogated by UCPD and that friends who had been stopped and frisked. “In terms of emotional stability and mental health, I feel like this University is not conducive to any of that,” she said. “It’s not unknown that a lot of us struggle with those issues because of the rigorous demands of the University, and we really have nowhere to go to get the help that we need.”

In response to arguments that the officer who shot Thomas was reasonably defending himself, Tai said the officer should know how to disarm someone without resorting to using a gun, saying, “They tried no escalation techniques whatsoever.” When reminded that the officers had repeatedly demanded Thomas drop his weapon, she said that people suffering from mental health crises are irrational. “We can’t always just resort to pulling out a gun. If you justify that, then he was just a couple inches away from hitting him in the chest.”

Camila Gonzalez, an undergraduate studying institutional studies of the humanities, said they were unsurprised that the shooting had taken place, saying the police “constantly discriminate against black students, assume they are Hyde Park community members and therefore try to kick them out,” Gonzalez urged prospective students not to attend the U. of C. and expressed regret at their decision to do so. “It was a process of learning, and by the time you’re in your third or fourth year it doesn’t make sense to leave. That’s when you start realizing that the University is a piece of shit. And if you’re a black or brown student, particularly a black student, you realize that the second you come here. And community members have recognized this their entire lives.” They said U. of C. students have “a lot of work to do in order to dismantle the institutions that built the school, that laid the foundations for this university.”

A U. of C. spokeswoman said the students’ demands were still under review by the administration but issued a release mental health and police training.

“Ensuring the well-being and safety of our students and the University community is of paramount importance,” it read. It noted that counseling services are provided within five business days without a waitlist through the Student Counseling Service, that a Crisis Intervention Counselor was available during the Service’s opening hours and that an on-call therapist was available over the telephone outside of working hours. It defended the U. of C.’s mental health staffing level as comparable to other private universities.

The release also noted that 85 percent of UCPD officers received 40 hours of crisis intervention training—including the officer who shot Thomas, who had additional training in mental health first aid.

Thomas’ friends and family released an additional statement Saturday. “Not only is Charles’ struggle not over, it is only beginning,” it said. “The traumatic consequences of being shot by an officer of the law along with possible legal consequences and a baseline stigma against people labeled mentally ill spell out a long road to recovery for Charles and his family.” It closed by asking people to push against the narrative that Thomas is “a dangerous criminal.”

Body-worn camera:

https://uchicago.box.com/s/bzpuvx9b84sn9eilhpyun71kekdqyd7o

Vehicle camera:

https://uchicago.box.com/s/agadralvjfu67hix3xr620fw54904h27

Herald Intern Gabriella Cruz Martínez contributed to this article.

a.gettinger@hpherald.com