A Preventable Tragedy

The UCPD shooting should have never occurred in the first place.

By Michael Lemay

At around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 3, a University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officer responded to a call alleging a burglary in progress. The officer arrived to find a masked man carrying a metal pole. The man for whom this call was made approached the officer carrying the weapon, despite being told to put it down. The officer retreated for about 30 full seconds, followed by the armed man. The student then charged the officer, still carrying his weapon. The officer fired once while running backwards and hit the man’s shoulder.

In the state of Illinois, the law states that a person commits assault when they “engage in conduct which places another in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery.” Upon a simple review of the video evidence, it is clear that the officer was reasonably apprehensive of receiving a battery. Whether there were mitigating circumstances has yet to be adjudicated in a court of law, so I will not speculate on that. What is clear, however, is that the actions of this man—a student named Charles Thomas—meet the legal standards for assault.

After the fact, friends of this student have argued that he was, in fact, suffering from a mental health crisis. It has been reported that the man is bipolar. I have little doubt that this is true. The man is a student at my university. He should not have been shot. I feel deeply sorry for him, and I wish him the best in his recovery.

It is not at all clear, however, how the officer was supposed to know this while being charged by a masked and armed man. The police, except under extreme circumstances, should not shoot people. Still, self-defense is a right regardless of the mental state of the assailant. The officer could speculate—he says, “He’s a mental” in the video—but what he knew for sure is what we see in the video. And so he fired.

For contrast, when Philando Castile, Laquan McDonald, Alton Sterling, and many others were murdered by police, they were not imminent threats to the bodily safety of the officers who murdered them. There is no universe in which their deaths could be justified by self-defense. Self-defense is not universal protection from charges of excessive conduct.

The man who was shot Tuesday night, however, cannot make a case as strong as Castile or McDonald or Sterling. He charged a police officer armed with a weapon. The officer fired to defend himself from severe bodily injury.

Is it clear that the officer was right to shoot? I do not know. Is it clear he was wrong to shoot? I do not know that either. It is a question of the appropriateness of force when engaged in self-defense, which is an extremely difficult question. I am not an ethicist or a lawyer. But I can recognize that the question is complicated. I personally lean towards the officer’s claim to self-defense being legitimate, but I recognize the merit on both sides. In light of that, it is hard to call this event as anything other than a tragedy for both sides involved. I am sorry for the officer left to make such a choice in a split second. I am sorry for Charles.

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.

The protestors are right that what took place was a preventable tragedy in which this university’s severely inadequate mental health policies played a part. That a student who was bipolar was in that alley smashing windows and threatening those around him, enough that they called the police out of fear, means that the University had already failed him. Given perpetual underinvestment in mental health resources, it is clear to me the University could have done more, far more, to prevent that situation from happening. 

The protestors are right to want to change this school for the better. 

This tragedy was preventable, but it had to be prevented before 10 p.m. on Tuesday night. It could and should have been prevented any step before that, but it was not. And so it goes.

The protesters are to some extent correct: There is blood on the hands of this university and, to a lesser extent, the hands of the UCPD. Both must do a better job in the future. Both must change, and judging by their statements and inaction so far, it seems drastic action is needed to force this university’s hand, to make them realize that they are responsible.

But it is incumbent on the protesters to take full account of what happened, not to exaggerate and twist what occurred into something that it was not. There are some who claim the shooting is evidence of racism in the UCPD. There is no evidence of race playing any part in this shooting. Furthermore, they overstate their argument by claiming shooting someone in self-defense, which is a morally uncertain act, is instead police brutality. The argument against the University in this case is already strong enough without invoking race or police brutality. By arguing that University police need to be disarmed because a single officer discharged a weapon in self-defense, they discredit their very legitimate complaints around mental health resources and how the UCPD responds to situations like this.

There are also some at this university who wrote that the facts of the case are immaterial. There could be nothing further from the truth. There is nothing more important to demanding change from this university. We must argue that this exact tragedy was preventable. The facts represent the University failing both officer and student. 

The University must change, and for that to happen we must change it. The administration has made it clear they make a habit of ignoring students’ concerns. But we must not lie to ourselves about what happened and, in doing so, make ourselves easy to dismiss. It is only by recognizing what really happened that we can demand the right changes to fix the problem.

Let’s make sure that this never happens again.


Michael Lemay is a third-year at the University of Chicago.