By now, the police shooting of fourth-year University of Chicago student Charles Thomas after Thomas charged at a UCPD officer with a metal pipe has been covered extensively in the media, particularly in the campus newspaper, the Chicago Maroon. The original news article spawned a flurry of opinion pieces as well as commentary on social media. Unfortunately, many of the narratives published so far fixate on the same, tired, and flawed perspectives, attempting to excuse or justify Thomas’ violent behavior using mental health and mental illness while demonizing the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD)’s handling of the incident, which ultimately resulted in a UCPD officer discharging his service weapon and Thomas suffering a nonfatal penetrating shoulder injury.
Let’s start with Thomas’ mother, who describes a family history of bipolar disorder and believes that her son was in the midst of a manic episode. By all accounts, Thomas had no personal history of bipolar disorder, had no significant anger issues, and no adverse encounters with law enforcement before this incident. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the mother is correct and that Thomas was indeed suffering from a manic episode secondary to bipolar disorder. The unfortunate reality is that bipolar disorder and violence are thoroughly intertwined; individuals with bipolar disorder are 1.77-3.72 times more likely than individuals in the general population to demonstrate aggressive behavior, especially if other factors such as alcohol or drug abuse are involved. While it would be premature and irresponsible to speculate whether or not such factors were involved on that fateful April night, the bottom line is that, like Jekyll and Hyde, the specter of violent behavior cannot be safely or reliably divaricated from bipolar disorder.
But violence is violence, and for the poor sod on the receiving end of a blunt metal pipe it makes no difference whether the violence stemmed from mental illness or garden-variety premeditated assault and battery. Astute UChicago undergraduate students who paid attention during their SOSC classes will undoubtedly be familiar with the philosophies of John Locke as well as his contemporary Max Weber. Through his belligerence, destructive behavior, and attempted assault on a police officer, Thomas committed transgressions against others’ life, liberty and property. As a sovereign entity, the University of Chicago has a legitimate monopoly on violence as instrumented by the UCPD; when it exercises violence in order to preserve the natural and unalienable rights of life and property on University grounds and in the surrounding community, that violence is irrefutably legitimate. For the same reason, Thomas’ violent actions cannot be legitimized, regardless of the presence or absence of mental illness.
With this context in mind, we can now begin dismantling many of the arguments made by the pro-Thomas/anti-UCPD crowd. Let’s examine the Letter to the Editor from individuals in the School of Social Science Administration, a piece whose credibility is immediately compromised by the comedic and ludicrous assertion that a metal pipe is not a deadly weapon. They question UCPD’s sanction to use deadly force, incongruously proclaim that “police are inadequate and inappropriate first responders in the case of mental health crises” (once again, violence is violence), and have the gall to declare that the detail of “whether the student charged the officer” is irrelevant. As the sole enforcement arm of a sovereign entity (the University) as well as the primary law enforcement organization in a neighborhood surrounded by South Side communities plagued by illegitimate violence, the legitimacy of, and the need for the UCPD is beyond reproach, especially in light of the fact that the UCPD has gone decades without an officer discharging his/her weapon. The legitimacy and professionalism of the UCPD is further demonstrated by the incredible restraint shown by the officer as well as the rapid release of body camera footage of the incident. Quite frankly, the so-called professors and scholars of the SSA should know better, and instead of rushing to judgment and excoriating the actions of the UCPD, they might first consider paying heed to the discourse of their ancestors in sociology.
On the other hand, it’s refreshing to see that the criminal justice system seems to have a more robust grasp on reality and the aforementioned principles of social science. Thomas is now facing multiple felony and misdemeanor charges for assault on a peace officer and criminal damage to property, and rightfully so. The serious nature of the charges is an appropriately measured response that resists the populist temptation to shift the conversation from violence to mental health and mental illness.