The UChicago community is still reeling from the tragic events of last week, when fourth-year student Charles Thomas suffered a reported manic episode and was shot by a UCPD officer on duty. At a time when our nation has been struggling with difficult discussions about police brutality, many of us never imagined that a university police officer would have to use force against a student. Thomas and his family in particular must be struggling with this turn of events.
We must show Thomas love and support, as he is a member of our community. We should also start a serious conversation about mental health treatment at the university. But beyond that, it concerns the authors that many here have reacted by importing the most polarizing anti-police rhetoric from an important national campaign against systematic injustice into a context where it does not belong. In the body camera video, Thomas ignored the officer’s repeated requests that he drop his weapon, backing him up several hundred feet before charging the man with the bar. His mental state notwithstanding, we cannot ignore that he ran at the officer holding a heavy blunt object. The officer shot to protect his life; thanks to the video, we can say this with more certainty than in many other use-of-force incidents dominating the national debate. By lumping in last Tuesday’s accident with those scenarios, we not only create controversy on a false premise, but also damage an important movement for police reform.
The authors are convinced that given existing community standards for police behavior—in particular, that the police should be armed for self-defense at a minimum—the officer behaved appropriately. Hence personal attacks on him and calls to publicize his name strike us as inappropriately vindictive. That said, our existing approach to policing leaves much to be desired. Your authors call enthusiastically for police to counter any existing implicit racial biases as part of training, and to identify alternative tactics to contain a threat other than shooting to kill. Not that police should never use force; few would want to leave the police at the mercy of better-armed lawbreakers. But we have a moral responsibility to reform the way police use force.
To that end, we must engage in dialogue. In particular, we must collaborate with the police who face and manage threats on the street on a day-to-day basis. It seems unlikely that many of Friday’s protesters have ever been pursued by someone wielding a cudgel, as the officer they’re criticizing did on Tuesday night. As UChicago students we enjoy a measure of safety from that kind of threat. And this is because brave men and women—many from the South Side—sign up for a job that puts their lives in danger. Trivializing that sacrifice by chanting “How do you spell racist? U-C-P-D,” or questioning their basic willingness to serve and protect, can only drive them away from joining reform efforts. Adding insult to injury, in its coverage of the incident and its aftermath, we feel that even The Chicago Maroon has covered the incident in a divisive manner by giving disproportionate airtime to the most divisive responses. In its initial story about the shooting, the publication quoted only those with varying degrees of condemnation for the UCPD. The same can be said of the coverage of Friday’s protest, and until recently the Maroon has only published opinion pieces accusing the police of abuse. This is counterproductive. We must approach reform from a place of mutual understanding, rooted in respect. In the words of the great American writer James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” His searing indictments of American racism filled volumes, but he grounded it all in a basic sense of patriotism. We should adopt a similar sense of perspective in combating injustice today.
It is laudable that many in our community are willing to fight to fix a flawed system, but we must be wary of the fight taking on more importance than the fixing. Right now it’s time to support Thomas, and yes, support the police officers who risk their lives so that we can enjoy free debate here on campus. Let’s build trust, and then we can build a better system.
Ronen Schatsky and Connor Lockhart are contributing writers for the Gate; as is the case for all Gate opinion pieces, their views do not reflect the views of the editorial board.