Opinion: People too quick to assume police at fault in Georgia Tech shooting

A peaceful vigil devolved into violence Monday night on the Georgia Tech campus as anti-police protesters disrupted the event. Photos: special to the AJC

Rick Diguette is a local writer and retired college instructor who often writes about higher ed issues for this blog.  Today, he raises concerns about the early news reports on the Georgia Tech shooting and how they may have shaped the narrative that police were at fault.

By Rick Diguette

On Saturday night, a man placed a 911 call to Georgia Tech campus police alerting them to “a suspicious person on campus,” and describing this person as a white male with long blond hair, wearing a white T-shirt and jeans and possibly armed with a knife or gun.

Soon after campus police confronted a man fitting the description and ordered him to drop his weapon. He refused to comply, instead challenging them to “Shoot me!”  Again he was ordered to drop his weapon and again he failed to comply. Eventually, as he advanced toward one of the officers, he was shot and killed.

As everyone now knows that man was Scout Schultz, who, at the time of his death, was a 21-year-old student at Georgia Tech majoring in computer engineering.

When the story broke, no one knew the 911 caller and the “suspicious person” were one and the same.  Perhaps if that had been part of the initial narrative, the police wouldn’t have come in for so much instant criticism.  Perhaps Scout Schultz’s bereaved father would not have asked the police “Why did you kill my son?” at his Monday news conference.  And perhaps violence wouldn’t have erupted during an otherwise peaceful protest on the Georgia Tech campus last night.

Perhaps.

What has happened since Scout Schultz was killed Saturday night has become all too familiar in recent years. A citizen is shot and killed by police, videos soon surface on the Internet, the police are vilified, and violent protests follow a day or two later. In some of these cases, the video evidence appears to be conclusive of police misconduct and excessive use of force, although police tribunals and trial juries haven’t always seen things that way.

But the death of Scout Schultz is different. Scout deliberately put himself in harm’s way and arguably made the Georgia Tech campus police his accomplices. What motivated him to do that may be explained in one of the three suicide notes found in his dorm room, the contents of which have not been made public and probably won’t be now that the family plans to file a civil suit against the Georgia Tech Police Department.

There’s another thing about this case that is very familiar: the warp speed with which the shooting of Scout Schultz morphed from an isolated incident on the campus of Georgia Tech into a national headline, and how that headline quickly came to be viewed like all the other headlines we’ve seen since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014.

The media has a duty to report on incidents like this one, and the public has a right to know when the police use deadly force and under what circumstances. The police must also understand that their performance in the line of duty will be minutely scrutinized after the fact, oftentimes by people who know little or nothing about lawful police procedures. A problem arises, however, every time the narrative outpaces the available facts, which is what happened in this case.

If it had been known that Scout Schultz was the 911 caller, and that he had given the police a description of a “suspicious person” exactly matching his own, the story’s profile and the initial reaction to it would have likely been quite different. But by then the initial reaction had hardened into a settled opinion: the police were once again guilty of excessive use of force. And when it became known on Monday that the GBI had found three suicide notes in Scout’s dorm room, the wheels of anger and protest were already in motion.

The time has come for the media to reconsider how it covers incidents involving the deadly use of force by law enforcement. In early reports not enough emphasis is placed on what isn’t known, and this invariably and understandably leads readers and viewers to “fill in the blanks” with preconceived ideas about the police and how they conduct themselves when dealing with armed and unarmed citizens.

This is not an argument for giving law enforcement more time to make the facts fit a preferred narrative. Police misconduct is real, and when it occurs the police must be held accountable. But it’s also important to recognize that incidents like this one tend to take on a life of their own. They can very easily become something they are not, and when that happens it’s difficult to undo the damage that’s been done.

An otherwise peaceful protest and vigil organized by Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance to honor the memory of Scout Schultz erupted in violence Monday night. Three people were injured and at least one police vehicle set on fire. And what made Scout Schultz call 911 and describe himself as suspicious, armed, and possibly dangerous remains a mystery.

 

Reader Comments 0

315 comments
taelorrye
taelorrye

You'd think that AJC would be up to date with AP Style... Use preferred pronouns.

Dan Loder
Dan Loder

This is not protest, it is mobbing. It's a form of organized crime.

Johnny Knight
Johnny Knight

A Mentally Ill Sexually Confused Adult committed Suicide by Cop that is the truth.

Ygael Tresser
Ygael Tresser

the video shows what happened, a suicidal troubled young men being delt with by untrained police. Shame on you for twisting the truth to protect a campus police force that in my opinion should only have deadly weapons if suicidal training has been learned

Bryan Sorohan
Bryan Sorohan

OK, one more time: we need to make it harder for mentally-ill people to commit suicide by cop. That means addressing the training cops get for dealing with mentally-ill people, not blaming their parents or trying as hard as possible to find anything in their backgrounds that excuses their being killed.

Sam Burnham
Sam Burnham

Saying "Georgia Tech" was adding unnecessary words. People are too quick the police are at fault in shootings. Wait for evidence before jumping to conclusions.

c130a
c130a

You mean wait for the evidence that the police want you to hear and that vindicates the cop no matter what he did?  Sure, that makes sense since cops never lie, do they?

John Williams
John Williams

I give the police permission to shoot to kill me, but only if I give them a reason to. I can say that, because I never will.

Lucy D Matte
Lucy D Matte

The video shows it was clearly not the cops fault. Sad, absolutely, but he refused to stop, and drop his weapon...whether it was a multi tool or not, he was using it as his weapon. He wanted to die, you can't blame THIS cop.

c130a
c130a

He was not USING it, he was merely holding it.  Get your facts straight.

Gary Haire
Gary Haire

There are many nuts who will never hold cops accountable no matter what...Wether they shoot kids, mentally ill or un-armed people. Which have me thinking these people are mentally ill.

Ree Haley
Ree Haley

Oh no...imagine being seen as guilty before all the facts are in! \U0001f612 Maybe if they stop gunning people down in the streets....

Jim Price
Jim Price

And if someone armed with a knife was advancing on you, you would do what? Allow yourself to be killed? Run? Or defend yourself and others?People...you cannot train to shoot to wound. The firearm is an intrinsically deadly weapon. You don't employ it to wound, or shoot knives or guns out of peoples hands. I guess they could of Let the armed psycho continue to wander campus. Yep, then the cops would be accused of not doing their job.

c130a
c130a

You gotta' be one of these jerks with a badge.  Folks you never see wrongdoing in cops an, if you do, you keep your mouth shut.  Pathetic.

Mike Parker
Mike Parker

Pretty close when he told them he has a gun

William Karnival
William Karnival

Too many people are tanting the police and gets what they deserve, then the wimps cry ,

Derek Steele
Derek Steele

Scout was suicidal, we have learned. That being said, you would say that that justifies a label of being of mental illness. Does or doesn't GA Tech have a list of mentally ill students?? Wouldn't you think that GA Tech should provide their campus police said list in order to watch out for these students?? Secondly, its totally insane for campus police to carry guns. The campus police should be armed with tasers for just these reasons. And before I receive insensitive, rude comments let me state that other colleges do have lists like this. Instead of finding out who's at fault I feel we should shift the focus on how it was able to happen, especially on a college campus.

Jackie Angel
Jackie Angel

His name is Scott, and HE reported himself in the 911 call as having a knife and probably a gun.....listen to the 911 call. He got exactly what he wanted.

Christine Garner
Christine Garner

Ummm.... he called 911 on himself and left 3 suicide notes. He was going to die that day no matter what. And you blame the cops. #THISISTHEPROBLEM

Corey Thompson
Corey Thompson

She* so cops are in the assisted suicide business now? Didnt know that was legal.

Bonnie Wilson
Bonnie Wilson

Doesn't matter what the cop does, he will always be blamed by certain people.

Kat Brag
Kat Brag

Campus police should be trained to deal with suicide which is very common on college campuses

Missy Guider Holmes
Missy Guider Holmes

Seriously. All you who keep saying he JUST HAD A KNIFE... put your kid or husband out there to take it away from him. And they had less than 20 seconds to make the decision what to do and execute it. The officer followed protocol

Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd

It was a closed multi-tool, Missy. I would have taken the student to ground in the blink of an eye.

c130a
c130a

 Then the protocol is as deficient as the killer cop.

Vu Le
Vu Le

Next time if you see this again you call me, ok? I'll smash him into the face within a second and at least keep him alive.

Missy Guider Holmes
Missy Guider Holmes

Thanks to the media. Where's the story's about the over 50 people who were shot yesterday and killed by random Americans ? Oh that's not important??

c130a
c130a

You're correct, Missy, those killings have absolutely nothing to do with this case and are not important.  Such a clever girl.

Don S. Rowley
Don S. Rowley

The cops shot a deaf mute man yesterday. Yes, we shouldn't rush to judge them. Their poor gentle hearts can't take it

Don S. Rowley
Don S. Rowley

Lisa Haas Marshall go eat a Twinkie you overweight half stupid retard. Maybe your fat cells are smothering your brain cells, you imp.

c130a
c130a

Well, Missy, now you are advocating vigilantism which is against the law.  Not a bright girl, are you?

c130a
c130a

I didn't know Missy liked Twinkies.  I thought she just was one.

Bart Levine
Bart Levine

The shooting is justified and all the millennials and gen X people can go sit in a corner and cry \U0001f622

Wayne Wells
Wayne Wells

You must remember, there are thousands of low lives that look for any excuse to riots and throw rocks and burn things.

Kevin Bearden
Kevin Bearden

Because Athority and laws mean nothing to this generation we all know that

Susie Shields
Susie Shields

So true, John Rose, he pulled off his 4th suicide Attempt.

Debbie R McGuire
Debbie R McGuire

Bad news sells...beats me why some want such glory for falling for such.

Ruth
Ruth

No matter what your opinion about this incident is, PLEASE respect the memory of Scout by using their preferred pronouns, they/them.

John Rose
John Rose

This was suicide by cop that is all

Jared Thiele
Jared Thiele

But, they were at fault. This situation could have been handled easily without the use of deadly force. It was a pocket knife...

Jared Thiele
Jared Thiele

Lisa Haas Marshall... A pocket knife... This person was so obviously trying to commit suicide by cop. There were 4 cops with guns drawn. You mean to tell me not one of them could have drawn a taser?

Lisa Haas Marshall
Lisa Haas Marshall

He called 911 and described himself as having a gun on his waist and a knife. They didn't know he was the caller. People die from stab wounds just like gun wounds. He didn't follow their commands, he wanted to die and he knew they would shoot if he advanced. Comply with officers and they won't shoot.

c130a
c130a

@ Jared -- It wasn't even a pocket knife.  It was a multitool that contains a very dull blade.  It is a tool not a weapon.  Unless you're a punk cop, of course, and want to see what it's like to kill someone.

c130a
c130a

You are such a simpleton.  This cop wore protective vest that a knife blade is not expected to penetrate, assuming he ever got that close.  He didn't follow commands because he probably was confused and upset. Hardly a reason to kill him.  I hope you don't raise your kids with that degree of discipline, if you are a breeder.