Is a Gun the Only Option?

After fatal shooting of a student, experts question why Georgia Tech doesn’t arm its officers with stun guns.

September 19, 2017
 
Image from social media video of the incident at Georgia Tech

As he answered questions from reporters, disbelief and anger rang in the voice of the father whose child, a Georgia Institute of Technology student, was shot dead by a campus police officer Saturday.

“Why did you have to shoot? That’s the question. I mean, that’s the only question that matters right now,” Bill Schultz said at a news conference Monday, as if he were addressing the cop who killed Scout Schultz, 21. Immediately after Schultz posed the question, he said that the university should equip its police with Tasers -- which it does not.

Though law enforcement experts in interviews cautioned against critiquing the officer’s actions based on the limited information made public and the brief video clips capturing the shooting, most agreed that equipping police officers with Tasers in most cases ensures they're prepared for any scenario -- and reduces the possibility of death.

Officers confronted the younger Schultz outside a Georgia Tech dormitory late Saturday, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which has begun a review of the incident. Schultz wielded what the bureau called a knife, but what the Schultz family’s lawyer described instead as a multitool -- and no blade was unsheathed.

Police told Schultz to drop the weapon -- Schultz did not do so. Video posted online shows Schultz screaming, “Shoot me.” (Video footage, available here, may be disturbing to some viewers.) Schultz continued to ignore the police officers’ instructions, and eventually moved slowly toward a group of officers, with someone shouting, “Drop it.” After a gunshot, the student screamed and fell.

Schultz, the president of the campus group Pride Alliance, which represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, died Sunday in an Atlanta hospital. Schultz identified as bisexual, nonbinary and intersex and preferred “they” and “them” as pronouns -- the Georgia bureau refers to Schultz as “Scott Shultz.” In interviews with local media, the student’s parents said their child battled depression and had attempted suicide before.

The bureau said Monday that three suicide notes were found in Schultz’s room and that Schultz had called 911 to report a possible campus intruder with a knife and gun.

In a Facebook statement, the Pride Alliance said Schultz's leadership prompted change on campus and across Atlanta.

Largely because of the continuing investigation, the university has released limited information.

University police officers do not carry stun guns, only pepper spray, a Georgia Tech spokesman, Lance Wallace, confirmed. He declined to discuss the university’s decision to not provide Tasers.

The Schultzes' lawyer, L. Chris Stewart, blasted the institution at the news conference Monday. Stewart said the family intends to file a civil suit against Georgia Tech. Wallace refused to comment on the prospect of a lawsuit.

“You’re on a college campus, you’re going to be dealing with kids that may be drinking, may be belligerent, may be not listening, may be having a mental breakdown,” Stewart said, questioning why officers don’t have stun guns.

The prevailing wisdom in law enforcement advises furnishing officers with as many tools as possible, including Tasers, said Sue Riseling, the executive director of International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. When Riseling was police chief at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she found it useful to give her officers stun guns. Should one be deployed correctly, she said, it allows officers precious seconds to possibly grab a subject while the stun gun freezes the muscles. The Taser also gives more range than does pepper spray, which is can be affected by the wind, she said.

Riseling outlined ways officers can try to soothe a subject -- this can be complicated, depending on if the person will listen and speak with a police officer, which is sometimes the most successful way to de-escalate a situation.

Analyzing the Georgia Tech shooting off a video may seem easy, but it shows just a single perspective, said Riseling, adding that waiting for the results of the investigation is vital. She said officers are generally trained to back away from an advancing subject, even someone with a weapon, but at some time police need to “make a judgment call.”

Certain drugs, like PCP, for instance, increase strength in certain people, or make them unpredictable, Riseling said.

“At some point this comes to a head … and you may have to go with a lethal alternative,” she said. “That’s gut-wrenching, but that’s sometimes where it goes.”

Her organization offers reviews of police procedures should an institution request it. Wallace would not provide Georgia Tech policy documents that defined under what circumstances an officer should fire a weapon, directing a reporter to file a public records request.

Georgia Tech’s police force is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Riseling said, which she described as “the gold standard” for all police agencies, not just campus ones. She said the question will be whether the officer met those standards.

The fatal shooting appeared not to be justified in this case, said Hyeyoung Lim, an associate professor in the department of criminal justice at University of Alabama at Birmingham. She noted that in the video officers arrived with backup and some were larger than Schultz. She questioned, though, the appropriateness of a Taser because it could be uncontrolled.

Tasers are generally shot from a distance of at least 15 feet, and the Schultz family's lawyer said officers were standing 20 feet from Scout -- the recommended distance between police and a suspect.

But Tasers are neither foolproof nor immune to abuse. In 2006, the University of California, Los Angeles, needed to re-evaluate its policies on Tasers after an officer shocked an Iranian-American student with one multiple times for failing to produce identification. The Police Assessment Resource Center in an independent review recommended that Tasers only be used on aggressive subjects, and that the institution carefully define different levels of violence to warrant use of a stun gun.

Tasters can also be lethal -- a high school graduate on the University of Cincinnati campus died in 2011 after police fired a Taser at him, eventually leading to a $2 million settlement for his family.

Min-Seok Pang, an assistant professor in the department of management information systems at Temple University, has studied police body cameras and technology with his colleague Paul Pavlou, a senior associate dean at Temple.

In an email, he called it “concerning” that the Georgia Tech officers were not given Tasers.

“This incident also illustrates a point for a campus police that cameras are ubiquitous in a college campus,” Pang wrote. “Every action by a police officer will be recorded by the students, most of whom are very well versed with using smartphones.”

This incident will serve as a learning experience for the entire country, said Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University. Police entities will likely re-evaluate how they can minimize these types of deaths, he said.

Burke, a former police officer in Maryland, said he favors equipping officers with Tasers. Institutions will need to weigh the optics, though, of an officer roaming campus with a full utility belt -- a Taser, baton and gun could intimidate some students. He also pointed out that costs for this equipment extend far beyond the purchase of initial hardware -- training is also involved.

He said he would advocate for more training among officers, particularly in dealing with subjects with mental-health problems. A quick checklist could be developed, he said, that could determine whether force was acceptable, though he said everything hinges on the specific circumstances.

“They have to play the role of a psychologist, a social worker, a health-care worker, and wear all these hats simultaneously while making a split-second decisions that will last weeks, months and years, and be judged both civilly and criminally and administratively. This is not going to be set aside,” Burke said of the Georgia Tech shooting. “This will be a teachable moment, but at what expense?”

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