“Why did you have to shoot?”
The pain in Bill Schultz’s voice was palpable as he stood beside his attorney, barely 24 hours after a Georgia Tech police officer shot and killed his child.
“That’s the only question that matters now,” Schultz said.
The facts — as we know them — are tragic. Scout Schultz was a troubled student, who according to the family’s attorney, may have been suffering a mental breakdown. Police say Schultz advanced toward them and threatened them with a knife.
Scout Schultz, according to a profile on the website of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, identified as nonbinary and intersex and preferred the pronouns “they” and “them.”
Police, guns drawn, asked the student to “drop it.”
Schultz shouted, “Shoot me.”
When, according to police, Schultz “continued to advance on the officers with the knife,” one officer fired his service revolver.
It is unclear whether Schultz intended to prompt the killing — investigators say three suicide notes were found in the student’s dorm room — but we do know Schultz had battled mental health issues like many who ultimately decide to force the hand of a cop and end their lives.
But set aside the Schultz case, and it is clear that there is a serious pattern of confrontations between emotionally troubled people and the police.
Nationwide, the number of what some call “suicides by cop” is statistically troubling.
The Tampa Bay Times compiled the number of officer-involved shootings in Florida between 2009 and 2014. It found that 246 police shootings involved someone with an apparent mental instability. According to its data, the newspaper tagged 85 of the shootings as “suicide by cop.”
A few months back I talked with Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, Florida. “In my little small pocket of the world, we’ve had three police shootings since January,” he told me. “All three shootings involved a mentally ill person not on their medication or not getting the proper care and firearms.”
Chitwood, who was interviewed beforehand and did not comment on what happened at Georgia Tech, surprised me when he took it a step further — violent offenders suffering from mental illness, he said, are “our biggest threat in law enforcement today.”
The numbers bear that out and are much too high, Chitwood said. “We should not be called to the home of a mentally ill person by their mom and (the) mom says … he’s naked in the living room, wielding a machete and he wants you guys to kill him, please come help me. And 22 seconds after we arrive, we give him his wish.”
Yes, he added, in many cases such shootings are justified by law but “sometimes lawful is awful.”
There are solutions. One is to use strategies such as “time, distance and cover,” which Chitwood said is the proper way to deal with a mentally ill person wielding a deadly weapon. “We spend an awful lot of time training with our firearms — and rightfully so — (but) we spend a minimal amount of time using the thing we use every single day in our careers. And that’s our mouths. And our brains.”
Back at Georgia Tech, violent protests broke out Monday night following a vigil held for Schultz, prompting Schultz’s family to urge students not to respond to violence with further violence. Meanwhile, the school is recommending that students “take advantage of all the resources on campus, for mental, emotional and physical well-being.”
A lot of attention has rightly been brought to the shootings of African-Americans by police, most recently by the protests in St. Louis over the acquittal of a former police officer who shot and killed a black motorist. As we learn more about what happened to Scout Schultz, I hope greater attention can also be paid to the shootings of mentally ill Americans as well.