Tech shooting shines spotlight on campus police

5:01 p.m Friday, Sept. 22, 2017 Local
Steve Schaefer
Mourners wrote notes and attached them to a tree at a memorial for Georgia Tech student Scout Schultz Sunday, September 17, 2017, In Atlanta GA. Schultz, an engineering student at Georgia Tech, was shot by Georgia Tech campus police near Curran Parking Deck after allegedly wielding a knife and telling officers to shoot him Saturday night. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

When a young officer with the campus police department fired a single bullet into the chest of a 21-year-old computer engineering student last Saturday night, it marked the first time a Georgia Tech officer discharged his weapon in the line of duty.

Sadly, that bullet turned out to be fatal, killing Scout Schultz, president of Tech’s Pride Alliance, and putting the career of 23-year-old Tyler Beck in question, pending a GBI investigation.

It also cast the spotlight onto campus police, whose job description requires them to be part-law enforcement officer, part-counselor.

Georgia Tech’s police force, founded in 1974, has 89 officers, all but five of of whom are full-time. Like other university police departments, Tech’s officers are fully accredited, have varying levels of experience and full jurisdiction over their campuses.

But Tech PD, which still has strong support from many students, is now facing questions about training and equipment. Specifically: Why aren’t the university’s officers required to complete crisis management instruction ? And why aren’t they provided more nonlethal options, such as Tasers, when faced with a belligerent suspect?

Both could’ve led to a much different outcome for Beck and Schultz, experts say.

“The school failed the officer in training and equipment,” said retired police officer Marvin Reddick, a 25-year veteran of law enforcement and a Tech policeman from 2005 to 2010.

Anger over the police shooting of a Pride Alliance leader at Georgia Tech turned violent Monday night, as protesters set a campus police car ablaze following a candlelight vigil.

And Tech is not alone, at least when it comes to equipping their officers with Tasers. While nearly all of the campuses nationwide that employed sworn police officers authorized them to use a sidearm, only 40 percent of these agencies authorized their sworn officers to use a conducted energy device, such as a Taser, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“Some universities are reluctant to fully equip their police forces,” said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and former police chief at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Their judgment on that matter should get some reconsideration.”

Of course, Tasers are not without controversy. In November 2015, a Florida man, Chase Sherman, died after being repeatedly Tased by Coweta County police

In Georgia, campuses have the discretion to determine if officers should carry Tasers, a spokesman with the University System of Georgia said Monday. University of Georgia police have them; Georgia State University police say they will have them soon.

Tech officials have declined comment but in an online Q & A this past July an investigator with the campus police said “we are discussing adding them to our officers’ available tools in the future.”

Campus police may not have M16 rifles like Atlanta police but such lethal force is generally unnecessary. Their job is often to keep the peace but they are more likely to be called on to subdue a fraternity brother who’s had too much to drink or calm a stressed-out student threatening to harm him or her self.

“Communication skills are particularly important at universities,” Riseling said. “Disturbance calls are unique to campus police” —most revolve around emotionally distraught or disturbed students, excessive drinking, thefts and sexual assaults.

“We train for everything, but in reality maybe one percent of our calls are of the active shooter variety,” she said. “De-escalaton and good negotiation skills are crucial for a campus officer.”

Tech police had no way of knowing the caller to 911 last Saturday night — who reported “somebody skulking around outside” near a west campus parking deck, with a “knife in his hand” and, perhaps, “a gun on his hip” — was actually orchestrating their own suicide.

In a video capturing the confrontation, Schultz can be heard daring the officers to shoot while ignoring their commands to drop the pocket knife the student activist was holding. Beck, located roughly 20 feet away, fired his gun, striking Schultz, who left behind three suicide notes, in the chest. He was the only officer to discharge his weapon.

Georgia Tech Police Department Instagram account
Georgia Tech Campus Police Officer Tyler Beck is shown in this Instagram photo. Photo: Georgia Tech Police Department Instagram

Beck, it turns out, had not yet completed Crisis Intervention Training, a week-long course conducted by the GBI which trains officers to recognize signs of behavioral problems caused by mental illness or substance abuse. Training records show only 22 members of Tech’s force have CIT certification, which is mandated only for state officers.

Speaking after the shooting, Gov. Nathan Deal said he hoped participation would rise at Tech and for other local departments.

“I hope that more of the local law enforcement officers will take advantage of the training, and I think they will,” Deal said. “We’ve been in a situation where we had requests we couldn’t accommodate under the old structure – now we can accommodate them.”

The University has declined comment. In a message to students Tech Police Chief Rob Connolly said that because the shooting is being investigated by the GBI, “we are limited in what we are able to share.”

Reddick said CIT training was not mandated when he was at Tech. Officers take a five hour course in crisis management to obtain their campus policing certification.

The demands placed on campus officers make it necessary, said Reddick: “It should be standard policy.”

“The toughest things to deal with were the suicides,” he said. “We averaged one or two a year, with many more calls.”

Most situations require university police to take on the role of a “patient father,” Reddick said.

“A university shouldn’t be the place where you go to get training,” he said. “Children policing children can be a dangerous mix.”

Riseling said larger campus police forces, like Tech’s, tend to be attractive career destinations for officers.

“You’ll get people who spend their entire career at a university,” she said. Smaller schools will often have greater numbers of veteran or retired officers.

Campus policing has changed considerably since its nascent days. Most date back to the 1960s and 70s, formed as a reaction to unrest over the Vietnam War and civil rights.

Then, college cops were largely enforcers, not afraid to use violence to quell disorder. More than 4,000 public and private postsecondary school employ a police force, according to the IACLEA; 92 percent of public colleges and universities utilize them, the Justice Department, using statistics through 2012, reported.

“There is a lot of engagement with the students, Riseling said. “Community policing was prevalent on campuses well before you heard most municipal departments even talking about it.”

These days, college police departments do tend to focus more on safety than enforcement, adopting a “harm reduction model of crime control,” University of Pennsylvania criminologist Emily Owens told The Atlantic recently

Still, whenever there’s an officer-involved shooting on campus, the scrutiny is intense.

In 2015, the Cincinnati City Council suspended off-campus patrols by University of Cincinnati police after a campus officer shot an unarmed man after pulling him over for lacking a front license plate. The officer was indicted for murder.

The last one in Georgia occurred in 2014 when a Columbus State officer, retired from the Columbus Police Department, shot and killed a campus visitor.

CSU officials said the visitor was carrying a loaded pistol after three university police officers chased him across campus. The lawyer for the dead man’s family disputed this account, saying he was not carrying any type of weapon.

A Muscogee County grand jury recommended against pursuing criminal charges.

Georgia Tech is facing a civil lawsuit from Schultz’s parents, who say they’d like to see all of its officers equipped with Tasers along with mandated CIT training.

Riseling agreed that the university should reconsider their policies on equipment and training.

“When I was at Wisconsin I wanted officers to have every tool possible so they could choose the right level of force for a particular situation,” she said.

Beck, she said, was given lethal force and no other options.

“I don’t think the officer should be held accountable for tools they didn’t have,” she said.

Beck is on paid suspension pending the outcome of the investigation. The GBI’s findings will be turned over to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who will determine whether criminal charges are necessary.

Don English, Beck’s lawyer, said his client was justified in shooting Schultz.

“I’ve not talked to one law enforcement professional who would disagree that the use of force was justified in the situation that confronted these officers,” English, general counsel with the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, told Channel 2 Action News.

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