‘That was not the Charles I know,’ mom says of U. of C. student shot by police
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The mother of a 21-year-old University of Chicago student said Thursday that she believes her son was experiencing a psychiatric episode when an officer shot him after he charged with a long metal object in his hand — an incident captured on graphic videos that the school has made public.
Charles Thomas was wounded in the shoulder Tuesday night in an alley near the campus after officers responded to a call of a burglary in the 5300 block of South Kimbark.
It was the first time a University of Chicago officer shot someone in the decadeslong history of the campus police department, officials said.
Thomas, who lives on the block where he was shot, is charged with aggravated assault of a peace officer and criminal damage to property, both felonies, along with criminal damage to property, a misdemeanor, police said. A Cook County Judge Thursday set his bail at $15,000.
When campus police responded to a burglary call at about 10:15 p.m. Tuesday, three officers arrived to find “a young male individual with a long metal pipe, breaking car and apartment windows,” according to a statement from the university.
On a body-camera video, an officer in a police vehicle says, “mental, he’s a mental,” then yells out, “Hey, sir!” then “Hey, stop there, stop there!” as Thomas approaches, wearing a maroon jacket, yellow gloves and a large plastic visor.
“Stop there! Don’t come at me!” the officer says.
The officer gets out of his car as Thomas continues to approach.
The officer steps backward and yells, “He’s got a crowbar. Put it down!” He keeps retreating and says, “Put down the weapon!”
Thomas yells out, “What the f— you want?”
Someone says, “Tase him!”
Then the officer repeats, “Sir, I need you to drop that weapon!”
Thomas charges the officer, who yells, “Don’t come at me!” and fires his gun at Thomas, who screams expletives at officers who rushed to his side as he lay in the alley.
Thomas’ mother, Kathleen Thomas, told the University of Chicago’s student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, that her son is a fourth-year political science student who never exhibited mental health issues before. However, his family has a history of bipolar disorder.
“To me it was obvious he was having some sort of psychiatric episode, a manic episode,” she said. “That was not the Charles I know. All through him growing up and his teenage years, I’ve only seen him get slightly angry a couple times.”
Stress from thesis deadlines may have contributed to the episode, Thomas’ mother said.
Still, she expressed reservations about the need for the officer to use deadly force.
“I realize it was a very tense situation,” she said. “I do sort of wonder: Were there alternative methods that could have been used other than using bullets to handle the situation?”
Her son was being treated at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. His Facebook account says he is from Riverside, California. He’s listed on a U. of C. website as a member of the school’s rowing team. Friends set up a GoFundMe page to cover medical expenses that had raised $2,800 as of Thursday evening.
Stu McDonald, the captain of the rowing team, told the Sun-Times, “Charles by far is the most genuine person I know. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
McDonald said he was puzzled why Thomas was charged with felonies — and why police didn’t use a Taser instead of a gun to stop him.
“Of course I think it went way too far,” McDonald said. “To pull a gun and shoot a student is horrifying.”
The officer who shot Thomas has been on the department for about two years. New officers attend the Chicago Police Department’s academy. The officer’s actions were part of a “tactical retreat” he learned during more than 40 hours of crisis and mental health training, officials said.
The Chicago Police Department is reviewing whether the shooting was legally justified, said Anthony Guglielmi, a spokesman for the department. The University of Chicago is conducting an internal review of whether the shooting followed the university’s policies on police use of force.
A law-enforcement source said the shooting appears to be legally justified.
The university released videos from a body camera and a dashboard camera to the media “to provide more public information on the circumstances of the officer-involved shooting,” university spokesman Jeremy Manier said in a statement.
Police departments at private Illinois colleges such as the University of Chicago are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. The university could have opted not to make the video public. A proposal to subject college police departments to the act died in the General Assembly in 2015.
“Forty-eight hours is pretty fast [for footage to be released],” said Kwame Raoul, a sponsor of that legislation and the Democratic nominee for attorney general. “You almost have to commend the university for voluntarily making something available that quickly. It’s not customary.”
The University of Chicago Police Department, which became a fully certified law-enforcement agency in 1989, employs about 100 officers who patrol a wide area from 37th to 64th streets and from Lake Shore Drive on the east to Cottage Grove on the west.
Off campus, the Chicago Police Department is the primary law-enforcement agency and U. of C. officers provide a “supporting role,” according to the university. Under state law, campus police have the same arrest powers as municipal officers and are allowed to carry firearms.
Contributing: Nader Issa