The GBI investigates police shootings in which someone is seriously injured or killed for nearly every agency in the state, including the large departments around metro Atlanta. The GBI also investigates any case in which an officer fires a weapon in the direction of a person but misses, if that officer’s agency requests the investigation. Agencies aren’t required to request assistance in police shootings, but most do, especially since public scrutiny has risen in recent years.
In November, the GBI said one cause behind the increasing numbers of deadly encounters with officers could be drug abuse. In roughly 20 percent of fatal officer-involved shootings since 2012 in the state, the GBI found that those who were shot had methamphetamine in their system. The drug, known to cause erratic and violent behavior, has been surging in Georgia — and across the country — in the past few years as Mexican cartels push more plentiful and potent supplies into America, officials have said.
Frank Rotondo, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said he doesn’t know what factors are behind the increase in deadly shootings. But it does track with increases he’s been hearing about at departments across the country, he said.
“I really can’t tell you why,” Rotondo said Monday. “I think we’re all looking for an answer.”
He wondered whether mental health also plays a role because, along with drugs, mental health issues are another common factor for a number of civilians killed in police shootings.
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To better train officers to recognize and handle mental illness or drug addiction, in 2016 Gov. Nathan Deal expanded the availability of a 40-hour course on crisis intervention. The goal was for every officer in the state to be trained in how to respond to either situation.
Previously, a single GBI worker oversaw the training program statewide. Now the Georgia Public Safety Training Center has hired more teachers and is running the course in satellite locations across the state, Rotondo said, but some officers have not yet completed the training. A tally of how many officers had completed it wasn’t immediately available Monday. By January 2018, about 20 percent of Georgia police had finished.
Prior to 2015, roughly a quarter of the fatal officer shootings in Georgia involved people who exhibited signs of mental illness, a proportion that matched national figures, a previous AJC report found. From 2015 to 2017, the ratio was about one in three. Numbers for 2018 aren't yet available because details on many of the cases are still under investigation.
A GBI study that was still in progress in December found that, thus far, about 20 percent of the 2018 officer use-of-force incidents the GBI investigated involved a person struggling with mental illness. The incidents considered were shootings, as well as cases in which officers used Tasers and other types of force.
GBI Director Vernon Keenan, who retired Monday, said the study showed room for improvement in officers’ response to mental health crises, though he said the increased training is a strong first step. Also, he said 20 percent was deceptively low, because in many cases, information about the civilian’s mental health wasn’t available.
Digital audience specialist Pete Corson contributed to this article.
Georgia’s officer-involved shootings:
2018 - 53 fatal shootings among 95 total officer-involved shootings
2017 - 30 fatal shootings among 97 total officer-involved shootings
Numbers based on AJC analysis and Georgia Bureau of Investigation data
Officer-involved shootings are under increasing scrutiny as communities seek answers on why officers shoot. Investigating the rising number of officer-involved shootings has become a top priority for the GBI. The AJC tracks these incidents, including reporting when officers are found at fault or when their own lives are taken in fatal exchanges.