It was a quiet vigil dedicated to yet another victim of a police shooting, lasting about half an hour. But just 20 minutes later, a separate protest erupted into violence — with protesters believed to be associated with the antifa movement marching toward police headquarters, setting off fireworks, burning a police car, and injuring two officers.
This was the scene at Georgia Tech on Monday night, days after campus police there shot and killed LGBTQ student activist Scout Schultz in what appears to be a suicide by cop.
According to video of the shooting, Schultz on Saturday night approached police officers while telling them, “Shoot me.” Officers at first resisted and backed away, asking what was going on and ordering Schultz to drop a knife. But when Schultz continued to walk toward the officers, one of them opened fire.
Warning: graphic video of a police shooting:
Schultz, a 21-year-old who identified as nonbinary and intersex and preferred “they” and “them” pronouns, was not wielding a knife, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), but a multipurpose tool. It’s not clear if the knife was out on the tool.
The officers at the scene have not been identified.
Three suicide notes were found in Schultz’s dorm room. According to GBI, Schultz called cops to the scene, claiming in a 911 call that a white male with long blond hair, a white T-shirt, and blue jeans was possibly intoxicated, holding a knife, and possibly armed with a gun at the hip. (No guns were found at the scene.)
Schultz’s family and their attorney, L. Chris Stewart, said Schultz had a history of mental illness and was going through a “mental breakdown.” Stewart said that the officer overreacted and that the school misrepresented the case by claiming that Schultz was “knife-wielding.”
On Monday night, Georgia Tech students held a peaceful vigil for Schultz, who led the university’s Pride Alliance. After the vigil, however, a separate group of protesters — chanting slogans associated with the antifa movement, according to Stephen Fowler with the local radio station GPB News — showed up and got violent. By the end of the night, two officers were injured, a car was set on fire, and three people were arrested on charges of inciting a riot.
Hey y'all I'm back! A masked antifa protester shoved me and stole my phone, but find my iPhone is your friend. pic.twitter.com/Ps5D47ZU4S— Stephen Fowler (@stphnfwlr) September 19, 2017
IMPORTANT NOTE: This was completely different group of people than the GT vigil for Scout Schultz. These were mainly masked antifa.— Stephen Fowler (@stphnfwlr) September 19, 2017
Schultz’s family condemned the violence in a statement: “Answering violence with violence is not the answer. Our goal is to work diligently to make positive change at Georgia Tech in an effort to ensure a safer campus for all students.”
As police shootings come under increased scrutiny nationwide, the case and ensuing violence have received a lot of national media coverage. But this shooting also draws attention to another disparity in police use of force: People who are suffering from mental illnesses are much more likely to be killed by police, and the cops often don’t have the proper training to handle such situations.
People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of police shootings
A 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that someone with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by police than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement. And according to a Washington Post analysis, mental illness plays a role in at least one-fourth of fatal police shootings.
If people were getting comprehensive care and support, police most likely would not need to get involved in many of the circumstances that end up in horrible tragedies. But very often in the US, that’s not happening.
Mental health care is woefully underfunded in America, and the criminal justice system is often the only institution that picks up the slack. A 2014 national survey by the Treatment Advocacy Center concluded, “Not only are the numbers of mentally ill in prisons and jails continuing to climb, the severity of inmates’ illnesses is on the rise as well.” The survey found that the people with serious mental illness in prisons and jails outnumber those in state hospitals 10 to one.
While it’s widely agreed this setup is not ideal, the reality of its existence has driven some law enforcement officials to change their ways at the urging of mental health advocates. This is, to some extent, harm reduction: No, police should not be the ones responding to mental health crises. But given the reality of the situation, police should be trained to deal with these crises properly.
Police, for example, may not understand that people going through psychotic episodes genuinely aren’t in control of their actions at the time.
But if police know someone isn’t in control of their actions, it makes deescalation seem much more sensible. After all, why would you shoot someone — effectively punishing them — for something they can’t help?
Through deescalation, officers try to level with people in the middle of a mental health crisis. In doing this, officers should keep their distance and calmly talk to the person they’re approaching to try to get them to relax. The idea is to get the person to trust the officer, eventually convincing the person to submit without any violence.
“Deescalation is always the intention,” Dixie Gamble, who’s trained officers for mental health crises, previously told me. “When the officer shows up, ask basic questions in a soft, lower voice.” She added, “Instead of putting your hands on the gun, hold your hands down by your side, open your palms outward, and ask simple questions: ‘Dude, are you okay?’ or, ‘Ma'am, are you okay?’ Simple, right? ‘What is your name?’ ‘What would you like?’”
From that point, officers should proceed to subdue the person by calmly talking them down and eventually linking them to medical care.
This can be safer not just for the person in a mental health crisis, but for the cop too — since it makes a person in the middle of a crisis less likely to lash out.
But very often, police are trained to essentially do the opposite of what they should.
“Police departments are trained to be authoritative — to step in, then take charge,” Pete Earley, a journalist and author of Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness, previously told me. “You're dealing with someone who’s psychotic, who’s already paranoid, who may be hearing voices that people are trying to hurt him. When someone encounters a police officer like that, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
This gets to the heart of the problem with how police respond to such encounters: It’s not that cops go into these situations with bad intentions, but rather that they’re essentially trained to handle these situations poorly. By changing that training, then, cops can go into crises with a better idea of what to do — and possibly avoid a deadly encounter.
Stewart, the Schultz family attorney, said that the main police officer was doing a “phenomenal job” in responding to the situation, because he was pulling back and trying to talk through with Schultz about what was going on. But then it seems a different officer opened fire.
Stewart also questioned why the cops didn’t use nonlethal force. Georgia Tech officers reportedly carry pepper spray, but not other weapons, such as stun guns, that are less lethal than firearms.
Schultz’s father had a question for the police: “Why did you have to shoot? That’s the question. I mean, that’s the only question that matters right now. Why did you kill my son?”
According to the Associated Press, GBI has trained 10,000 local, state, and federal officers through its Crisis Intervention Team since 2004, with some agencies requiring the training. But it’s not clear if the officers who responded to the scene received the training.
Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting
Legally, what most matters in police shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in immediate danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.
Constitutionally, “police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances,” David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, previously told Dara Lind for Vox. The first circumstance is “to protect their life or the life of another innocent party” — what departments call the “defense-of-life” standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He’d stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn’t shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, “they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you’ve got a violent person who’s fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight.”
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who’d survived his encounter with police officers, but who’d been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack.
The court didn’t rule on whether the officers’ treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn’t justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were “objectively reasonable,” given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
What’s “objectively reasonable” changes as the circumstances change. “One can’t just say, ‘Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,’” Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, previously said.
In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
For some critics, the question isn’t what’s legally justified but rather what’s preventable. “We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable,” Ronald Davis, a former police chief who previously headed the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police “need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun,” he added. “When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."
Police are rarely prosecuted for shootings
Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
“There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility,” David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, previously told Amanda Taub for Vox. “And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction.”
If police are charged, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The statistics suggest that it would have been a truly rare situation if the officer who shot Schultz was charged with and convicted of a crime.