After U of Chicago Cop Shoots Undergrad, Students Say It’s Time to Defund and Disarm Campus Police

Police shot student Charles Thomas last week while he was in the grips of an apparent mental health crisis.

Alex V. Hernandez April 11, 2018

Nearly 200 people chanted “No Justice, No Peace! No racist police!” at a rally demanding the University of Chicago Police Department be disarmed after one of its officers shot student Charles Thomas while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. (Alex V. Hernandez)

A frigid wind cut through the crowd gath­ered last Fri­day at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go where near­ly 200 peo­ple chant­ed No Jus­tice, No Peace! No racist police!” The ral­ly, which made its way across cam­pus, was orga­nized by UChica­go Unit­ed, a coali­tion of mul­ti­cul­tur­al stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions formed to make the uni­ver­si­ty more inclu­sive of stu­dents from mar­gin­al­ized back­grounds. The stu­dents gath­ered to demand the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Police Depart­ment (UCPD) be dis­armed after one of its offi­cers shot Charles Thomas last week, while he was expe­ri­enc­ing a men­tal health crisis.

“He’s not the first student to have suffered injury at someone else’s hands as a result of mental health problems that have occurred on this campus."

This cam­pus is noto­ri­ous for its poor han­dling of men­tal health, espe­cial­ly when it’s caus­ing a lot of these issues due to the high stress envi­ron­ment,” Daniel Las­tres, a stu­dent at the uni­ver­si­ty and Thomas’ room­mate, told In These Times. He’s not the first stu­dent to have suf­fered injury at some­one else’s hands as a result of men­tal health prob­lems that have occurred on this cam­pus. And frankly, there’s been long-stand­ing calls to demand ade­quate fund­ing for stu­dent coun­sel­ing ser­vices that have not been acknowl­edged or act­ed on.” 

Las­tres said stu­dents only get a hand­ful of appoint­ments with woe­ful­ly under­staffed” cam­pus coun­selling ser­vices before being asked to go seek help else­where. Accord­ing to pro­test­ers, in a vac­u­um of sup­port, police make men­tal health crises even more dangerous.

In video released by the uni­ver­si­ty, armed UCPD offi­cers are seen dri­ving their patrol vehi­cle up to 21-year-old Thomas, who was in an alley in the 5300 block of South Kim­bark Avenue, around 10:15 p.m. The police say they were respond­ing to a call of a bur­glary in progress.

It appears at least one offi­cer knew Thomas was in the grips of a men­tal health cri­sis. Body and dash cam­era footage of the April 3 shoot­ing released by the uni­ver­si­ty show an uniden­ti­fied offi­cer in the lead police vehi­cle respond­ing to the call. He’s a men­tal,” the offi­cer said, before exit­ing the vehi­cle to con­front Thomas. 

Police shot Thomas, who is bira­cial, in the shoul­der, break­ing his shoul­der blade. After being shot, he was chained to his hos­pi­tal bed put under pri­vate guard, with only his moth­er allowed to vis­it him at North­west­ern Memo­r­i­al Hos­pi­tal, Las­tres says.

Kath­leen Thomas, Charles’ moth­er, told Chica­go Maroon that she believes her son was hav­ing some sort of psy­chi­atric or man­ic episode. She explained that her fam­i­ly has a his­to­ry of bipo­lar dis­or­der but added that she hadn’t expe­ri­enced any of the behav­ior her son dis­played on the police footage the night he was shot. 

Guy Emer­son Mount, one of Thomas’ pro­fes­sors, told In These Timesthat the shoot­ing of his stu­dent is symp­to­matic of the broad­er insti­tu­tion­al prob­lems inher­ent in cur­rent polic­ing and crim­i­nal legal systems. 

We live in a puni­tive jus­tice sys­tem … that says prop­er­ty is more impor­tant than peo­ple,” he said. And that the duty of the state is to pro­tect prop­er­ty, and human beings are in many ways sec­ondary to that.”

Page May, the founder of Assa­ta’s Daugh­ters and who used to live in Hyde Park, told In These Timesthat when the UCPD arrests, stops or search­es peo­ple, these mea­sures have no basis in real cam­pus safe­ty. She recalled one instance when a group of 12-year-olds was enjoy­ing the day in Hyde Park because of its pub­lic green spaces and UCPD offi­cers stopped and start­ed arrest­ing them. 

These kids were 12-years-old. I couldn’t believe it,” said May. 

In May’s view, UCPD seems to be more focused on pri­or­i­tiz­ing the university’s real estate invest­ments as it con­tin­ues to expand its cam­pus into Chicago’s Black Belt. 

After shoot­ing Thomas, the Chica­go Police Depart­ment (CPD) charged him with aggra­vat­ed assault of a police offi­cer with a weapon, two counts of crim­i­nal dam­age to prop­er­ty and two mis­de­meanor counts of crim­i­nal dam­age to prop­er­ty. Thomas’ bond was set at $15,000 and he was ordered held on elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing on April 5

The charges filed against the stu­dent were filed by the Chica­go Police Depart­ment. CPD is the agency who is lead­ing the inves­ti­ga­tion,” Marielle Sainvilus, a spokesper­son for the uni­ver­si­ty, told In These Times.

In a state­ment, CPD said its offi­cers are con­duct­ing the under­ly­ing crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion” while the uni­ver­si­ty is han­dling the admin­is­tra­tive use of force investigation.”

The uni­ver­si­ty released a state­ment say­ing that rep­re­sen­ta­tives at its offices of Cam­pus and Stu­dent Life and the Stu­dent Coun­sel­ing Ser­vice are always avail­able to meet with stu­dent groups to dis­cuss their ques­tions, con­cerns, and ways of enhanc­ing coun­sel­ing and health ser­vices.” The uni­ver­si­ty claims about 85 per­cent of its armed police have received 40 hours of Cri­sis Inter­ven­tion Train­ing, includ­ing the offi­cer who shot Thomas on April 3.

But some are not reas­sured by police train­ing. When you’re talk­ing about train­ing, please just stop,” said May. When they are shoot­ing you 20 fuck­ing times, or eight, or six times — that’s noth­ing you can train peo­ple out of. That’s rage. That is being anti-Black. You don’t train racism out of people.”

UChica­go Unit­ed released a list of demands that include the dis­ar­ma­ment of the UCPD, a reduc­tion of its patrol juris­dic­tion, the cre­ation of an elect­ed Inde­pen­dent Review Com­mit­tee and that UCPD com­ply with the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act, among oth­er things. 

This was not an iso­lat­ed inci­dent,” said Alyssa Rodriguez, a stu­dent at the uni­ver­si­ty and one of the ral­ly orga­niz­ers. UCPD has a long his­to­ry of harass­ing, assault­ing, and endan­ger­ing stu­dents of col­or and Black com­mu­ni­ties. At the same time, both UChica­go and the city of Chica­go refuse to invest in men­tal health resources.”

Alex V. Her­nan­dez is orig­i­nal­ly from Chica­go and has bylines in the Chica­go Tri­bune, Chica­go Read­er, Chica­go Mag­a­zine, City Bureau, In These Times and 90 Days, 90 Voic­es. He was also a 2017 Peter Lis­agor Watch­dog Award final­ist for his work on an inter­ac­tive Chica­go Reporter data­base that shows where, how and when police mis­con­duct hap­pens in the city of Chica­go. He tweets at @AVHndz.
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