Over and over, hitting pause, advancing the action instant by instant, I’ve been watching the video taken from the body camera of the University of Chicago police officer who shot a 21-year-old man in a South Side alley late Tuesday.
Here are a few observations:
• Protesters who’ve been decrying the officer’s conduct have highlighted that the shooting victim, Charles Thomas, was in his fourth year at U. of C. — the word “student” was underlined four times on a sign displayed Thursday at a campus demonstration against the shooting.
But there’s no evidence and no reason to suspect that the officers who responded to reports of a man using a metal rod to smash car and apartment windows knew Thomas was a student. And even if they had known, it’s not a safe assumption that a student is less dangerous than a non-student.
• Thomas ignored repeated demands from the officer that he stop and put down his weapon, and he loudly cursed police as he continued to stride down the alley. The officer retreated for what appeared to be several hundred feet, keeping a safe distance as Thomas advanced.
This is just how you’d want police to respond in such a situation — with an attempt to defuse a volatile situation without anyone getting hurt. Thomas was angry and defiant, yes, but he was suspected of being a property criminal only and he posed no immediate threat to anyone.
Until suddenly he did.
• Thomas dramatically escalated the confrontation by charging directly at the officer. “Don’t come at me!” the officer yelled twice, to no avail, before pulling the trigger on his service weapon. The bullet struck Thomas in the shoulder.
Clearly, the officer believed himself to be in imminent danger, and I don’t see how anyone watching the video could disagree. Maybe the officer could have outrun Thomas or parried a blow from the metal rod — police radio chatter had identified the weapon as a crowbar — and wrestled Thomas to the ground.
But maybe not.
Maybe Thomas would have gotten the better of the officer and bashed in his head, killing or permanently disabling him. If you’re in the officer’s position, do you take the chance?
No. Some of the police shootings that have been captured on video appear rash and gratuitous, horrifying overreactions from jumpy officers who too readily ventilate suspects who are fleeing or not moving. But what unfolded Tuesday night was a textbook example of when law enforcement is justified in using deadly force.
• The officer fired just one shot. He didn’t empty his gun into the suspect or shoot wildly, as happened in the October 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, in the shooting last month of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Calif., and in other high-profile cases.
The shot was enough to halt and bring down Thomas, but, luckily, not enough to kill him.
I say “luckily” and not “deliberately” because officers are not trained to shoot to wound. They are trained to shoot to kill. The reason, as explained to me in 2002 during a one-day mock training session for the media at the Chicago Police Academy, is that it’s difficult, dangerous and often ineffective to aim at limbs, and if officers are going to fire their guns, they ought to do so only when they believe the situation is a matter of life and death.
• Yes, ideally officers responding to such situations would have a range of less-than-lethal weapons to incapacitate potentially dangerous suspects without a great risk of killing them. Tasers, for instance. Guns that fire beanbags. Rubber bullets. Nets. Restraining foam. Pepper spray. Water cannons.
But danger comes at you fast, and even if departments could afford to equip officers with a range of minimally sufficient weapons, they often wouldn’t have the time to select and deploy them.
Though an off-screen voice on the University of Chicago Police Department body-cam video is heard saying “tase him!” UCPD officers don’t carry stun guns, according to a university spokesman. This may or may not be a good thing, since police overuse of stun guns has become a problem elsewhere, and stun-gun shocks don’t always work to subdue suspects as agitated as Thomas evidently was.
• That Thomas was evidently in the throes of a major psychological crisis — the officer says “He’s a mental” into his radio as he rolls up to the scene in his squad car — likely mitigates the punishment he will receive if convicted of aggravated assault of a police officer with a weapon and criminal damage to property, the offenses with which he’s been charged.
But Thomas being in such a state doesn’t mitigate the danger that the officer was in when Thomas charged at him. If anything, Thomas’ erratic, irrational behavior leading up to the shooting increased that danger and bolstered the officer’s decision to fire his gun.
A university spokesman said the officer, who has been with the campus police for about two years, took 40 hours of crisis-intervention training that included instruction on dealing with problems related to mental health, and an additional eight hours of mental health first-aid training.
Those of us who watch this video over and over have the luxury of hitting pause, taking stock of the moment, pondering all the options, then moving the action forward for a fraction of a second, hitting pause and thinking it all through again, all with the benefit of hindsight.
This officer had no such luxury. Even still, I find it difficult to second guess his actions
• An email Thursday from the activists at Revolution Club Chicago branded Tuesday’s shooting as “outrageous.”
I dissent. What’s outrageous is a knee-jerk response to all police shootings that ends up blunting the message and confusing the issue when police do cross the line.
The winner of the Tweet of the Week reader poll is @CulturedRuffian’s advice for married men: “Always be tolerant of your wife’s flaws because if she didn’t have them, maybe she could have gotten a better husband.”