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EDITORIAL: A campus cop, a college kid and a lesson in not rushing to judgment

Charles Thomas | Facebook photo

0:00 seconds: “Mental, he’s a mental.” 

These are the first words we hear, spoken by a police officer, as we watch two minutes and nine seconds of bodycam video.

The University of Chicago police are right. The young man who is walking toward an officer in an alley, holding a pipe and wearing a large plastic visor that obscures his face, clearly is mentally or emotionally disturbed.

0:09 seconds: “Hey, sir.”

The officer is polite. We notice that.

0:15 seconds: “Hey, stop there, stop there.”

The officer is alarmed.

0:16 seconds: “Don’t come at me…come on.”

The officer is almost pleading for the young man to stop.

This is what we see and think as we watch the video. But a whole city is watching it. What do they see?

What do you see?

0:23 seconds: “He’s got a crowbar. Put it down….Hey, put down the weapon.”

We’ve got a bad feeling. Is the officer giving the young man, who is disturbed — but also armed — a fair shake?

Are we, watching the video now, giving the officer a fair shake?

We can tell, by the way walls and garbage bins move by, that the officer is backing away almost the entire time. He walks backward, asking the young man to stop, for almost 50 seconds.

This is not a cop looking for a confrontation.

0:48 seconds: “Tase him.”

Yes, we wonder. Why doesn’t the officer, or another officer, just tase the man? Better an electric jolt than a bullet.

But, honestly, what do we know? Would a Taser be effective? And if we were that officer, with a man holding a pipe now rushing right at us, would we risk it?

As it happens, nationally recognized experts in police use of force, interviewed two days later by the Sun-Times, say a Taser would not have been a good choice. The young man is moving and the barbs that a Taser fires might miss him.

0:56 seconds: “Sir, I need you to drop that weapon.”

1:05: “Don’t come at me.”

1:06: A gunshot. The wounded young man falls to the ground, cursing the police.

What follows next in our city, especially on the campus of the University of Chicago, is every possible woulda, coulda and shoulda — much of it valid and necessary. Every shooting by a police officer must be questioned and analyzed down to the last typed witness statement.

In the case of the Tuesday night shooting of Charles Thomas, the University of Chicago student shot by the officer, that process has just begun.

A formal investigation will question whether the officer and his fellow officers could have handled the situation better. It will ask if, in fact, if a Taser would have made better sense. It will review whether the officers followed their training in subduing a mentally disturbed person. It will ask whether that training was sufficient.

Others will question the relationship between the campus police and students. The Chicago Reporter on Friday reported that students and nearby residents have complained for years about racial profiling by the campus police, souring relations. University police stops of pedestrians and motorists, according to the Reporter, were way up in the first three months of this year.

READ MORE:
• U. of C. community rallies for Charles Thomas, student shot by campus police
• ‘That was not the Charles I know,’ mom says of U. of C. student shot by police
• Police identify, charge student shot by University of Chicago officer
• ‘Don’t come at me!’ Video shows University of Chicago officer shooting student
• Student shot by U of C police charged at officer with pipe: officials
U. of C. officer showed ‘great restraint’ before shooting student, expert says

Student protesters are questioning the quality and availability of mental health services on campus. They are questioning whether campus officers should be armed. They are questioning whether the university should even employ its own private police force.

Every one of these questions merits a closer look.

But for ourselves, for now, we are sure only of this:

In Charles Thomas, we don’t see a criminal, though he has been charged with crimes. We see only a troubled young man in need of help.

And in the case of the officer, we don’t see a bad cop in need of punishment. We see only an officer who followed the book — as best he knew how — in a tight spot.

We might at some point blame the book, but not the officer.

We see tragedy all around.