Georgia Tech Student's Death Is Part of a Pattern of Recent Police Violence on College Campuses

Human Rights

A student at Georgia Tech University was shot and killed Sunday by a campus police officer outside of a dormitory building, sparking outcry and causing demonstrations from the student body.

According to secondhand video of the incident, Scout Schultz, a fourth-year intersex student at the university who was president of Georgia Tech’s Pride Alliance, encountered campus law enforcement in a parking lot where officers repeatedly ordered Schultz to drop what they perceived as a knife. Investigators later found that Schultz possessed a multipurpose tool at the time, but its blade was tucked in and the tool was never extended toward officers during the encounter. After Schultz took a few steps toward the officers and began yelling, "Shoot me!" a gunshot was fired. Further investigation from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed three suicide notes from Schultz in the student's dorm room and a phone call from Schultz to the police reporting an armed man fitting Schultz's description stalking the campus.

Schultz’s death has become another example of the alarming frequency of police shootings—more than 700 people have been shot and killed by police officers just this year. Despite conceptions that campus police officers are less dangerous, glorified security guards, armed campus police officers are capable of inflicting the same violence as local law enforcement agencies.

In 2011, the University of California Davis gained national attention after video surfaced of campus police officers pepper-spraying a row of seated, peaceful student demonstrators at a rally protesting tuition hikes. The university gained so much negative press from the incident that administrators funneled over $2 million into its strategic communications department to improve the university’s reputation and wipe negative search results of the school from the web.

In October 2012, a police officer at the University of South Alabama shot and killed 18-year-old freshman Gil Collar after the teen repeatedly banged on the windows of the campus police station, prompting Officer Trevis Austin to investigate. Prior to Collar’s encounter with Austin, the student had ingested a hallucinogenic drug and proceeded to run naked through campus. Austin claimed Collar charged repeatedly at him; however, Collar’s mother argued that surveillance tapes showed her son was not within five feet of the officer. Austin was cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury in March 2013.

In 2015, University of Cincinnati campus police officer Raymond Tensing shot and killed black motorist Samuel DuBose during a traffic stop. While DuBose was not a student at the university, the incident took place near campus grounds when Tensing was on duty. Tensing was charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter after the killing; however, two trials have resulted in deadlocked juries. Prosecutors announced this July that they will not be seeking a third trial for the former officer.

The presence of police officers in institutions of higher education has become increasingly common. A 2011-2012 report from the Department of Justice shows an increase in the percentage of public and private universities that have campus officers, from 68 percent during the 2004-05 school year to 75 percent in the 2011-12 year. In fact, the increase in officers at colleges and universities has outpaced increase in student enrollment. According to the data, campus police officers are more common at public colleges and universities than at private institutions: 92 percent compared to just 38 percent.

Not only are there more sworn officers patrolling campus grounds, a majority of them are armed. The Justice Department data show that 94 percent of campus enforcement officers at public universities have firearms or chemical or pepper spray, while another 40 percent are equipped with Taser-like devices. Campus law enforcement officers at the University of Central Florida and Hinds Community College in Mississippi even possess some military-grade equipment, like a grenade launcher. 

Because campus police departments are under the jurisdiction of educational institutions and not municipal districts, these agencies can enjoy an independence and authority that local police departments do not have. While state or local police must report crime data to the federal government and release incident and arrest reports to the public to comply with open records laws, campus police are accountable only to university administrators and overseers, despite having similar practices and a similar makeup as municipal police. Private universities equipped with campus law enforcement can avoid transparency, as they are not beholden to following open records laws.

Having a department of campus officers also presents issues of scope and authority, as the lines of jurisdiction are not always clear. For instance, an investigation by the University of Chicago’s student newspaper found that the school’s law enforcement officers patrol outside of the school grounds into the surrounding community, resulting in 65,000 residents seemingly falling under their authority, even though about 50,000 of those residents are not university students. At George Washington University, reports by the student newspaper found that campus police “exceeded its scope of authorityand had unlawfully detained students and investigated noise complaints at private residences in Washington, D.C., according to the Atlantic.

The jurisdictional and authoritative ambiguity of campus police departments makes it all the more difficult to hold them accountable for issues of police misconduct or excessive use of force. Colleges often cite the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as the reason they do not release police incident reports, even though Congress amended FERPA in 1992 to remove the privacy protections for university police reports. While municipal officers are often at the center of incidences of deadly force that gain national attention, the police shooting at Georgia Tech shows that campus officers can be just as dangerous.

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