Georgia Tech Shooting Shows Schism Between LGBTQ Community and Police

After a 21-year-old was fatally shot by police in Atlanta, advocates say it's time for law enforcement to get training in dealing with trans people

On Sept. 17th, people gathered at a memorial for Scout Schultz in Atlanta. Credit: Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

The fatal shooting of a transgender student late Saturday evening rocked Georgia Tech – and left the LGBTQ community searching for answers.

Scout Schultz, who identified as non-binary and used gender neutral pronouns, called 911 around 11 p.m. on Saturday, September 16th to report a suspicious figure on the Atlanta campus. Schultz, who was president of the school's Pride Alliance, described the individual as "a white male, with long blond hair, a white t-shirt and blue jeans." The scene that ensued is confusing and is being contested, but video shows that when officers arrived at the scene, there was no mystery figure. Instead, the 21-year-old undergrad appeared to be experiencing some sort of a breakdown.

Some have referred to the incident as "suicide by cop." Schultz yelled at law enforcement officials who responded to the emergency call, "Shoot me!"

Police claimed that the student had a knife, but the object in Schultz's hand was later identified as a multipurpose tool. The device's blade was not extended during the incident. Police ordered Schultz to drop the weapon, to which the 21-year-old did not respond. As Schultz continued toward them, one of the officers fired.

After protests rocked the university on Monday, a critical detail emerged. Officer Tyler Beck, who was identified by the Georgia Tech Police Department as the shooter in the video, did not undergo crisis intervention training (CIT) prior to the incident. The training teaches officers how to respond in situations involving mental health crises. Schultz, who had a history of depression and suicidal ideation, left three notes behind in their dorm room.

Advocates argue that providing competent training in dealing with minority communities is vital in preventing tragedy. Schultz's death is just the most recent in a series of lethal altercations between the trans community and law enforcement.

Kayden Clarke was reportedly shot and killed in his Mesa, Arizona home after police responded to a domestic dispute in February 2015. The 24-year-old transgender man was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a condition that makes it difficult to read social cues. Ryan Hake, 23, was gunned down in Pennsylvania during a police altercation a year later.

Lou Weaver, the transgender program coordinator for the LGBTQ organization Equality Texas, understands the mentality behind these shootings. He's the son of a police officer and grew up surrounded by the culture of law enforcement.

"Sometimes it's life or death for you as a cop," Weaver says. "When someone has a weapon that they won't put down, what do you do?"

What complicates things is that transgender people learn to be afraid of police as a result of what advocates claim is routine mistreatment by law enforcement. A 2011 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force found that more than a quarter of trans respondents report being discriminated against by police. These incidents, Weaver says, can range from misgendering to being called an anti-LGBTQ slur by police.

"These are things that happen over and over again," Weaver claims. "I've heard other stories where people are strip searched on the side of the road."

This ingrained fear often creates a perfect storm when officers interact with trans people. Weaver says that when cops sense that apprehension, it can trigger alarm bells. Why are transgender people afraid, a police officer might wonder, if they have nothing to hide?

This is why organizations like the Anti-Violence Project advocate implicit bias training for members of law enforcement. Emily Waters, the senior manager of national research and policy, explains that these workshops are designed to address the "unconscious biases" that color our perceptions of others – whether that's through the lens of race, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Many people, she says, may not even be aware they hold these views.

By instructing officers in how to recognize these biases, Waters says, these trainings help police keep them in check.

"Law enforcement is often put into situations that are very heightened," Waters explains. "They're just in a space of reacting to the situation. That's when we often find that these implicit biases can be very dangerous – if you don't have the tools to think through where that thought is coming from."

Statistics from the Washington Post illustrate that these biases affect a number of minority populations, not just transgender people. Despite the fact that African-Americans make up just 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, black people accounted for 24 percent of all people killed by police in 2016. A quarter of those who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement last year had a history of mental illness.

"We as a nation are coming to understand and have better conversations around those inherent and systemic biases that exist in law enforcement," Waters says.

Implicit bias training, however, isn't the only way to address the mistrust and misunderstanding that exists between patrolmen and the populations they serve. Chanel Haley, gender inclusion organizer for the LGBTQ group Georgia Equality, believes that police departments need to "become more diverse." Hiring members of marginalized populations, she argues, can help humanize these groups and ensure officers treat them with dignity.

"Police often don't understand the challenges that come along with being a member of a minority group," Haley claims, pointing to the fact that Georgia has almost no protections at the statewide level for queer and trans people.

There remain a number of open questions around Schultz's death, which is currently being investigated to deduce culpability. Weaver wonders why Beck, who has since been placed on administrative leave, didn't use a less excessive means of force. He says that using a taser instead of a gun "might have ensured their safety and also ensured Scout could get the kind of treatment they needed."

"We need education of law enforcement officials and good standard operating procedures," Weaver says. "We need to learn deescalation and more ways to manage an interaction with trans folks – instead of letting fear and anxiety spiral into something that doesn't need to happen."