Opinion: A personal reflection on law enforcement, mentally ill

The tragic death of Scout Schultz was avoidable, is incredibly sad, and has touched me for many reasons. There is a sharp increase in suicide rates of young adult men, and I am particularly aware of self-inflicted deaths on and around Georgia’s campuses. I believe Scout Schultz intended to cause his own death, and the Georgia Tech police participated in his plan.

On more than a few times, I have been directly involved in dangerous encounters with mentally ill people in or around courthouses. Last year, when I was on the witness stand in court, a mentally ill woman was Tasered when she attacked a sheriff’s deputy, and a physical fight erupted between counsel table and me. I was grateful the officer pulled her Taser and not her gun to subdue the woman in the small courtroom where I and dozen other people were present. When I was a Magistrate Judge for DeKalb County, serving at the jail for the “night shift”, I watched police surround a screaming man who was covered in blood and holding a toddler. He had come with the child to the jail seeking a warrant from me against his wife, and with talk and patience, the officers I called were able to convince the incoherent man to release the child. Several other times, I personally witnessed police de-escalate an increasingly dangerous conflict through patience and calmness — surround the mentally ill person, take no aggressive action, and allow the person to rant until he or she tired or could be convinced to cooperate. In every incident I witnessed, where I was a participant, violence or death or serious injury was avoided based on the skill and experience of the police.

I remember very clearly a hearing at the Capitol last year in which senior law enforcement officers from rural counties described dangerous encounters with mentally ill offenders. Death, injury, or mayhem was avoided because the officers knew the offender — knew his family, his illness and patterns of behavior, and had learned how to help calm him. In one story, the local sheriff knew the inmate responded best, and would surrender to an offer of a Wendy’s Frosty.

From the video filmed by a student, I learned at least three Georgia Tech campus officers surrounded Scout Schultz, and yelled for him to drop the “knife”. I believe his death was avoidable despite his non-compliance with the officers’ orders. I know some of Scout’s parents’ ordeal and attempts to keep their child safe from self-harm, and I know of the challenges campus police have to protect 320,000 students on Georgia’s campuses. And, I am respectful of President Peterson’s request that we not judge the officers too quickly. But, I also know that mental illness on Georgia’s campuses and in society is not adequately addressed, and despite decades of policy discussions and budget appropriations, another mentally ill young Georgian, making good grades at our most-highly ranked institution of higher education, was shot dead by campus police, which is exactly was he asked for.