This feature appeared in the March 2019 print issue of America’s 1st Freedom
Feb. 21, 2018: BSO Sheriff Scott Israel berates NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch at CNN’s “Town Hall.”
As this article was being written, news flashed that Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel had been suspended by new Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. A harsh light had been turned on Israel’s leadership of the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) after 17 students and staff of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDHS) in Parkland, Fla., were murdered by a former student. Elected officials, parents, students, teachers, law enforcement and media all agreed: Israel had failed.
His failures were exacerbated by his arrogance and grandstanding in the aftermath of the tragedy. He refused to accept any responsibility, letting his deputies take the fall. He even blamed the NRA as he appeared onstage at CNN’s shameful “town hall,” shaking his fist in mock outrage. It was one of the most appalling political displays of deflection in recent memory.
On the day of DeSantis’ announcement, Israel vowed to “vigorously fight this unjustified suspension.” He blamed NRA for his demise, declaring that his fall was due to “politics, not Parkland.” Perhaps he hoped that would become a Twitter meme.
Oh, if only it were true. If only NRA had the power to hold Israel accountable, perhaps members could gain a measure of satisfaction in return for his shabby treatment of them.
However, anyone can tell NRA didn’t bring Israel down; he kept his job far too long.
The full 439-page report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission contains the most detailed analysis of the Feb. 14, 2018, attack yet, jammed with timelines, communications records and interviews. It focuses on the events leading up to the attack and the responses of law enforcement. The commission will continue to examine other aspects of the attack, and make recommendations, until its charge expires in 2023.
Of course, the commission’s findings are only as credible as are its members. A quick look at the 15 appointees reveals qualifications as deep as they are broad:
• Chairman Bob Gualtieri is sheriff of Pinellas County and has served the county for 35 years. He is on the board of both the Florida Sheriff’s Association and Major County Sheriff’s Association.
• Vice Chair Kevin Lystad is Chief of the Miami Shores Police Department and president of the Florida Police Chiefs Association.
• Eight of the 15 members have extensive law enforcement experience.
• Five are leaders in public education, with extensive awards and degrees in the field.
Many have impressive resumes in mental health, teaching and teacher training, social services and child advocacy.
• On the panel were a prosecutor, three lawyers, a school superintendent, a school board member, a school resource officer and the former head of the Florida Department of Families and Children.
• Two are parents of students killed in the massacre. One of those is a vocal advocate of gun control.
All 15 voted unanimously to approve the commission report.
The report cites multiple MSDHS security failures that resulted in unnecessary loss of life.
Classroom doors could only be locked from the outside; one teacher was gunned down while fumbling for his keys to re-enter the classroom.
Gates and doors were regularly left unlocked and unstaffed for long periods of time on the campus. This allowed the shooter to gain entrance to the campus unchallenged.
Campus Monitor Andrew Medina was the first school employee to see the shooter enter the campus. He radioed that there was a “suspicious kid” on campus, and noted he was carrying a bag, similar to those of the ROTC, that he later described as a rifle bag. When Medina’s golf cart hit a curb, the shooter and Medina locked eyes; the shooter ran into Building 12.
Unbelievably, MSDHS had no active assailant response policy. Staff had attended only one training on active assailant events, which was lacking in Code Red protocols for such dangers. There were no Code Red drills at MSDHS; no one knew “the criteria for calling a Code Red, who could call it or when it could be called.”
The results of this failure were disastrous, according to the report: “The lack of a called Code Red on Feb. 14, 2018—because there was no policy, little training, and no drills—left students and staff vulnerable to being shot, and some were shot because they were not notified to lockdown.”
No one in Building 12 remembers hearing a Code Red call on the public-address system; they reacted to either gunfire or the fire alarm.
Medina did not call a Code Red, even after hearing the first gunshots.
Monitor David Taylor recognized the shooter, too, recalling that he carried a “three-foot rifle bag.” When the shooting started, he barricaded himself in an office. He did not call a Code Red.
Monitor Aaron Feis was confronted by a student who told him there was someone with a gun in Building 12. Coach Feis did not call a Code Red, either; approximately one minute later, he was shot dead as he entered the building and immediately encountered the shooter.
The only Code Red announcement was made by Monitor Elliott Bonner over the school radio (not over the public-address system). As he drove his golf cart to Building 12, Bonner found Feis lying on the ground and heard gunshots. Surveillance video shows him throwing the cart in reverse and calling over the radio, three minutes and 16 seconds after the first gunshot.
When the shooter climbed to the third floor, he found the hallways flooded with students and staff responding to what they thought was a fire drill.
Gunfire set off the fire alarms in Building 12. The protocol for a fire alarm is immediate evacuation, but the protocol for an active assailant is just the opposite—shelter in place, lock doors, draw blinds, stay out of sight and remain quiet. When the shooter climbed to the third floor, he found the hallways flooded with students and staff responding to what they thought was a fire drill. It was a ready-made killing field, and there was no pa system in the hallways to redirect escaping students.
Classroom doors could only be locked from the outside; one teacher was gunned down while fumbling for his keys to re-enter the classroom. Third-floor bathroom doors were locked in an effort to combat vaping, cutting off another avenue to shelter. Inside the classrooms, “hard corners”—safety zones not visible from the outside—were either non-existent, or were obstructed by furniture or equipment. All are cited as basic security failures.
Deputy Scot Peterson had been with the BSO for 32 years, 28 of which were spent as a school resource officer (SRO). He served in that role at MSDHS for nine years. He was the only armed person assigned to the 3,300-student campus on the day of the shooting.
“Peterson was in a position to engage (the shooter) and mitigate further harm to others, and he willfully decided not to do so.”
By now, the details of his activities are well-known: how he was dropped at Building 12 by Medina; how he repeatedly referred to Building 12 in radio transmissions; how he directed other deputies to stay at least 500 feet away from the building; how he took up a position outside Building 12 and remained there until long after the shooting had ended.
He never called a Code Red. He never made an attempt to enter the building, confront the shooter and save the lives of students. There is no evidence Peterson attempted to identify the source of the gunshots, or that he was confused by echoes. He was trained to seek out the active shooter, not to “contain the area,” as he later told “The Today Show.”
The commission’s evaluation of Peterson is unequivocal: “Former Deputy Scot Peterson was derelict in his duty on Feb. 14, 2018, failed to act consistently with his training and fled to a position of personal safety while [the shooter] shot and killed MSDHS students and staff. Peterson was in a position to engage [the shooter] and mitigate further harm to others, and he willfully decided not to do so.”
And Peterson is just the tip of the BSO iceberg. The commission found that, while several responded admirably in the crisis, many wasted valuable time. It specifically called out deputies Michael Kratz, Art Perry,Edward Eason, Joshua Stambaugh, Richard Seward and Brian Goolsby for remaining at a safe distance and not moving immediately toward the sound of gunfire:
“Deputy sheriffs taking time to retrieve vests from containers in their cruisers, removing certain equipment they were wearing so that they could put on their vests, and then replacing the equipment they had removed all while shots were being fired, or had been recently fired is unacceptable and contrary to accepted protocol, under which the deputies should have immediately moved toward the gunshots to confront the shooter.”
“Sheriff Israel inserted the word ‘may’ in the BSO policy, and it is insufficient and fails to unequivocally convey the expectation that deputies are expected to immediately enter an active assailant scene where gunfire is active and to neutralize the threat.”
The commission notes this is in direct opposition to two decades of law enforcement training: “It is well-known within the law enforcement community that the response after the shooting at Columbine High School is no longer to contain and wait for swat; the proper response is to move toward the sound of gunfire and engage the suspect(s).”
Equally frustrating are the failures to secure command and control, confusion in identifying an incident commander, tactical problems and radio failures. Perhaps most inexcusable of all was the inability of school staff and BSO deputies to communicate that the surveillance video of the event was delayed by 20 minutes. BSO was directing assets to confront a shooter who had long since departed and was at a nearby McDonald’s.
These point to a glaring failure in training and policy at BSO. Deputies’ recollections of any active assailant training were fuzzy; some could not remember the last time they attended any such training. The commission found, “BSO’s training was inconsistent at best, and was reflected in their poor response to this active shooter event.”
In contrast, the commission found, “Coral Springs Police officers consistently praised their training as preparing them for a proper response. Without hesitation, each officer knew the active shooter training they had received annually for the past several years. They had no difficulty in identifying the proper response to an active shooter.”
However, many deputies could recite the written BSOo policy concerning confronting an active shooter: “If real-time intelligence exists, the sole deputy or a team of deputies may enter the area and/or structure to preserve life.” (Emphasis added.)
Compare that to the Coral Springs pd policy: “If real-time intelligence exists, the sole officer or team of officers shall enter the area and/or structure to preserve life.” (Emphasis added.) This explains why they ran past BSO deputies taking cover when they charged into Building 12.
How did the BSO come to adopt this out-of-step policy? “The reason I inserted ‘may’ and believe wholeheartedly in that word, sheriff, is because I want an effective, tactical response—not a suicide response,” Israel told Commission Chair Gualtieri.
The history of the shooter’s dysfunctional interactions with the educational system, family members, neighbors and law enforcement fills 64 pages of the commission report.
The commission found, “Sheriff Israel inserted the word ‘may’ in the BSO policy, and it is insufficient and fails to unequivocally convey the expectation that deputies are expected to immediately enter an active assailant scene where gunfire is active and to neutralize the threat. The use of the word ‘may’ in BSO policy is inconsistent with current and standard law enforcement practices.”
“Between the time [the shooter] was 3 years old in January 2002, and the time he was 19 years old in January 2018, there were 69 documented incidents where [he] threatened someone, engaged in violence, talked about guns or other weapons or engaged in other concerning behavior.”
The history of the shooter’s dysfunctional interactions with the educational system, family members, neighbors and law enforcement fills 64 pages of the commission report. Broward County Public Schools documented “nearly 70 incidents involving [the shooter] in its incident-based computer system.”
Multiple witnesses reported that the shooter had specifically threatened to shoot up the school. Multiple students stated they reported the shooter’s threatening behavior to both Principal Ty Thompson or Assistant Principal Jeff Morford. Both administrators dismissed the reports, downplayed the threat and later denied that students ever brought the threat to their attention. Commission investigators found the students “highly credible.” By contrast, “Investigators found Morford to be remarkably absent-minded in remembering details about various events and/or being intentionally deceptive.”
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission Chairman and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
The commission report says BSO had a total of 43 contacts with the shooter’s family before the shooting. Twenty-one directly involved the shooter. Most were minor; two were not, and “warranted additional follow-up that was not conducted.”
On Feb. 5, 2016, BSO was called when the shooter posted on Instagram: “I am going to get this gun when I turn 18 and shoot up the school.” BSO deputy Eason handled the call, but did not complete an incident report. In fact, he wrote in the dispatch notes, “No threats noted.” Eason was later disciplined for not thoroughly acting on the information.
On Nov. 1, 2017, a friend of the shooter’s mother called BSO to report that the shooter “might be a Columbine in the making” and was a threat to kill himself. Deputy Guntis Treijs took the call, but also did not complete an incident report. Like Eason, he was disciplined after the massacre.
It has been widely reported that fears about the shooter were even brought to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). On Sept. 25, 2017, a caller to the Mississippi FBI office reported that the shooter had posted a YouTube video stating, “I’m going to be the next school shooter.” However, the FBI never contacted YouTube or Google to identify the poster, and closed the investigation. In a 13-minute call on Jan. 5, 2018, a friend of the shooter’s family detailed the shooter’s “gun purchases, animal mutilations, escalating temper and ... Instagram usernames.” She also gave contacts for the shooter’s residence. Yet, the FBI labeled the lead as “having no value” and closed it without forwarding to the local FBI office.
The commission report includes what should be an unnecessary statement: “In today’s world, with numerous lessons learned from prior active assailant events, failure to train appropriately and consistently and properly equip all personnel is simply wrong and unacceptable.”
Retired Tulsa Police Department Sergeant Jim Clark agrees. Clark is a 35-year veteran of the TPD; he spent 21 of those years in Special Operations. After Columbine, he wrote and directed new training materials for the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA).
“I was actually shocked that the Broward County policy said ‘may’ instead of ‘shall’ or ‘must,’” he said. “I can’t imagine that being in a policy dealing with active shooters. In response to an active shooter, every contemporary policy should direct officers to enter the school and confront whatever the problem is. You’re not going to solve anything waiting outside. There was time for deputy Peterson to enter the school, confront the shooter and neutralize the threat.”
Clark maintains that the behavior of the BSO deputies called out in the report is an anomaly. He has trained thousands of officers nationwide, and has a different view of officer behavior.
“I honestly don’t know any officers who would wait outside, especially with the amount of training that has happened since Columbine,” he said. “I was on a hostage situation one night. I told one of my emergency response team members to let me know when we had 12 people, we’re going to get close and stage. He gathered 12 fast, and the next thing I know, I had another half a dozen guys mad at me because they weren’t going in. I had to explain to them I wanted a minimum of 12, that it wasn’t my intent to cut anyone out.
“That’s what I expect law enforcement officers to do. You take an oath to serve and protect, and just about every oath ends with, ‘with my life, if need be.’ What happened in Broward County doesn’t reflect on law enforcement officers in the United States as a whole.”
When the game is on the line, when time is running out, I believe most cops want the ball. I believe the majority of bso deputies want the ball, too. Israel has had a year to explain why so many of the deputies under his command didn’t. His time has run out.
The recommendation that has received the most media attention—mostly negative—is to expand Florida’s existing Guardian program, which allows staff who volunteer, are thoroughly screened and extensively trained, to carry concealed firearms on campus. The commission recommends “the most expansive use” of the program—to include teachers who satisfy the same requirements to carry concealed firearms on campus.
The reason the commission included this is because the shooter was able to wound or kill 34 people in a span of less than four minutes. That’s far less time than it takes a swat team to respond—less time than any off-campus law enforcement unit can arrive. It’s even less time than an armed SRO, who is already on campus, can respond. Inside of four minutes, the only effective response will come from an armed person already in the building—or in the room.
Shockingly, the report notes that the school “still does not have a formal, written and disseminated Code Red policy.” The report states, “There remains non-compliance and a lack of urgency to enact basic safety principles in Florida’s k-12 schools. … There must be a sense of urgency—and there is not, across the board—in enhancing school safety.”
There are teachers who want the ball, too. This is reason enough to give it to them.
Clay Turner is the creative director for America’s 1st Freedom magazine.