Campus police rely on de-escalation tactics to minimize shootings like that at Georgia Tech

A Georgia Tech police car being towed from the scene of a protest that turned violent. Photo by Ethan Mitcham | The Signal

Campus police departments have faced severe criticism after the Sept. 16 death of a Georgia Tech student, which gained national attention through the controversy and protest that followed.

Scout Schultz, a Georgia Tech student whose preferred pronouns are them/they/their, was shot and killed on the university’s campus after calling 911 and warning officers of an armed man that matched their appearance, according to The Signal.

At least four officers engaged in a  stand-off with Schultz, who according to police appeared to wield a knife, and continually advanced towards officers. Schultz shouted for officers to shoot them during the standoff and was shot once in the chest by Georgia Tech Police Department (GTPD) Officer Tyler Beck.

GSUPD training and mental illness

The Georgia State University Police Department (GSUPD) has provided assistance to Georgia Tech to maintain the safety of their campus, according to Chief of Police Joseph Spillane.

Spillane, a 29-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department (APD), joined GSUPD in Nov. 2016, and said situations like Schultz always pose difficulties for officers.

“For me to speculate that we would have handled that differently would be total speculation,” Spillane said. “When an officer is in a situation where he has someone with a weapon. and you have a 911 call that says he had a knife and a gun, that officer is going to be hypervigilant.”

However, he later elaborated that Georgia Tech officers properly attempted to subdue Schultz.

“You heard them [campus police] try to deescalate in the video… they’re telling [them]  to drop the knife and they’re telling [them] they don’t want to hurt [them]. Those are all the correct things to do. When someone is coming towards you with a weapon, there’s not a lot you can do,” Spillane said.

Georgia State officers are presented with these scenarios during state-mandated training at the Fulton County Police Academy. The eight-week training program involves lessons in criminal procedure and law, defensive tactics, and weapons training.

Once officers complete basic mandate training, they are placed into a field training program at Georgia State. Graduates of the Academy are assigned to experienced officers, and spend time learning about policies on campus. These new officers carry the same firearms as their seasoned counterparts.

“As soon as officers graduate from Fulton County Police Academy, they’re certified to carry a weapon in Georgia,” Spillane said.

After 90 days in the field, officers “hit the streets” under a 12-month probationary period, according to Spillane. Officers are evaluated on their performance every 30 days to determine their fitness with the department.

Officers at Georgia State are outfitted with both lethal and non-lethal weapons. Campus police carry Glock 9mm handguns, which are standard use for all officers, according to Spillane. Additionally, officers carry ASP extendable batons and pepper spray. Besides handcuffs and radios, officers store additional rounds of ammunition in their belts.

“We also train them with the use of shotguns and the use of patrol rifles, and those patrol rifles and shotguns are kept in the trunks of their vehicles,” Spillane said. “So we have certain officers that are trained in the use of those weapons in case we have something like an active shooter situation.”

Officers are trained in de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention techniques that decrease the use of lethal force. According to Spillane, the use of deadly force is “absolutely a last resort” employed only when the force applied against officers could harm them or someone else.

“There’s a continuum of force that you use. It starts with firm grip control of somebody and it escalates from there to the use of ASP baton, extendable baton, or OC pepper spray, or potentially a taser would maybe be used in a non-lethal situation,” Spillane said.  “It could escalate to you having to use a firearm in a situation that’s a lethal confrontation when you’re challenged by somebody with a firearm themselves or an edged weapon that could do harm.”

During his tenure as Chief of Police, Spillane said no officer has discharged his or her weapon on campus. Before he joined GSUPD, Spillane said the use of deadly force was rare and attributed that rarity to Georgia State’s Crime Suppression Unit.

“They’re the main people who come to a situation where someone is acting irrational. They’ve been trained in crisis intervention and they try and de-escalate the situation,” Spillane said.

The chief recently negotiated the purchase of tasers for the Crime Suppression and Traffic Units, to provide these officers with another less-than-lethal option. Spillane said that campus police receive adequate training to handle cases of mental illness, and that mental issues are properly and continually addressed by GSUPD.

“We have all of our officers go through crisis intervention training, which is a 40-hour course. In that course, you learn to recognize people who may be having some type of mental health issue. We also discuss it at roll call,” Spillane said.

GSUPD work closely with the Dean of Students to recognize students battling mental illness.

“Last week, we had a student who posted something on social media about wanting to harm herself with a handgun. We were able to locate her and bring her to the counseling center and get her the help that she needed before she did anything to herself,” Spillane said.

The department also provides resources to the homeless population on campus through the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement (HOPE) Team. The HOPE Team responds to any situation where an individual may exhibit signs of mental illness, and connects that individual to mental health resources at Grady Hospital or the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

“My goal is to get them [HOPE Team] to know all the homeless people, because many homeless people have mental health issues—almost all of them. And so in dealing with the homeless population, it teaches you how to see the signs of someone in distress,” Spillane said.