Shire-reeve–sheriff. England prior to 1066–contemporary America. While many Americans are beginning to be uncomfortable about Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, few understand the difference between a sheriff and a police chief. That knowledge is necessary to fully understand the Parkland shooting and the response of the agency Israel leads.
However, before we delve into that, gentle readers, let me raise a cautionary flag. We still know little about the Douglas High School attack. Media accounts are generally of dubious accuracy, and in this situation, reporters are far too quick to trumpet an “exclusive” about a small bit of additional information and draw sweeping conclusions from it.
Sheriffs are elected officials–politicians. In many states, they are not required to have police experience, and are exempt from the certification and training requirements their deputies must meet. Some sheriffs have law enforcement backgrounds, and some were good cops. Fewer were great cops.
Because Sheriffs are always facing the next election, they are inherently political animals, and temptations to play politics with law enforcement that are not generally present with municipal police agencies are always present. Any deputy that does not enthusiastically and publically support the sheriff for reelection can expect no promotional opportunities, and often, will be looking for a new job. Since the only way to make significantly more money in law enforcement is to be promoted out of actually doing law enforcement, this is a touchy issue.
All police agencies are paramilitary. They have a strict rank structure, and give and obey orders just as soldiers do. Considering the political nature of sheriff’s offices, municipal police departments are often less partisan and more professional, but not always. Las Vegas, a Sheriff’s Department, is notoriously corrupt, and its deputies pose perhaps a greater danger to innocent citizens than to criminals. No one is elected sheriff without the consent and support of the billionaires, politicians and mafia dons that control the gambling industry and everything related to it. There are enormous advantages to having a sheriff in one’s pocket. Baltimore, on the other hand, a city law enforcement agency, is corrupted by progressive ideology. After the Freddie Gray debacle no rational officer dares do their job, particularly against black criminals, and no one rises to the rank of chief without a demonstrated willingness to enthusiastically enforce progressive dogma.
Recent events have suggested strongly Sheriff Scott Israel is far more politician than sheriff. They have also suggested he is not terribly bright, knows little about law enforcement, is not above concealing information from and misleading the public, and will gladly throw his deputies to the wolves if it is to his temporary, transient political advantage.
Two common military phrases and aphorisms apply well to the Parkland, Florida school attack:
The fog of war
No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.
Regardless of how brilliant a police agency’s policies might be, regardless of how comprehensive the training, when the worst happens, everyone is left scrambling to do their best, almost always with confusing and incomplete–at best–information. It has been reported, for example, that Douglas High’s internal security video was on a 20 minute delay(?!). This means, in a situation where seconds matter, anyone relying on that video–and this may refer to the Broward County Sheriff’s deputies–would have been more than 20 minutes behind real time.
It’s vital to remember that we have no confirmed timeline of events, and without that, it’s impossible to make accurate judgments about events. Any officer responding to a school shooting in progress is almost certainly beginning to respond at least five minutes after the shooting began. This was the case in Newtown, CT. Even if an officer is on his way to a single school building, they virtually never have any idea where the shooter is when they arrive. All they know is where the shooter might have been minutes earlier, and often they don’t know that. A huge campus like Douglas High with multiple buildings is a horror show for police response.
Rare indeed is any officer with any idea of the layout of the building. Gunshots, if an officer can hear them at all, often don’t provide any clue where they’re coming from. It’s not like the movies where everyone knows what’s happening and where. Imagine the dilemma of officers responding to a campus like Douglas High. The building where the attack took place was Building 12 of a sprawling campus. By the time officers in Newtown were able to enter the building, the shooter was dead by suicide for about five minutes. As is virtually always the case, the police had no role in stopping the shooter, not did they at Parkland.
The advantage is always with the killer who chooses when, where, how and how long to attack. The better his planning, the more deadly the attack.
After Columbine (1999) it became common law enforcement doctrine for any officer on the scene to immediately enter and move to engage shooters. No longer would officers wait for a SWAT team and negotiators while innocents bled out. That does not mean every American agency adopted that policy, or that they trained to do it effectively. Even if they did, officers cannot simply rush in heedless of danger. They have to move tactically, intelligently. If they are incapacitated or killed, they help no one. Their body armor protects only against common handgun threats, and covers only the vital organs of the torso. They can still be incapacitated, even killed, by wounds to other, unprotected parts of the body.
According to Fox News the shooting began about 1421, and ended about 1428, a span of only about seven minutes. Fox also reports at 1432, a Sheriff’s Captain gave the command to “form a perimeter.” Apparently, a “S.W.A.T. team” entered Building 12, at 1427, but by then, the shooter was already off campus, on his way to a fast food restaurant. This particular Fox report is the only mention I’ve found of a SWAT team. Considering it was said to enter the building only six minutes after the shooting started, that’s almost certainly a mistake. No SWAT team could possibly assemble so quickly.
According to The Sun Sentinel, this is the time line:
1421: The shooter enters building 12 and sometime thereafter began shooting. This supposedly triggered a lockdown, but the shooter apparently pulled a fire alarm, sending students into the hallways.
1428: The shooting stopped, apparently because the shooter’s rifle malfunctioned. He abandoned it and left the building.
1541: The shooter is arrested away from the school.
A slightly more precise possible timeline is provided via Legal Insurrection:
According to multiple reports and police information, Nikolas Cruz entered Building 12 on the campus of Marjory Stoneman around 2:21 p.m. and began firing. Law enforcement tells Fox News the shooting lasted about seven and a half minutes.
According to a portion of the dispatch log, there was a call that came in at 2:23 p.m. from a female student about shots fired.
At 2:25 p.m., more ‘SHOTS FIRED’ were recorded by responding officers or witnesses.
At 2:26 p.m., the log indicated another call came in advising the shooting was coming from ‘THE 1200 BLDG.’
At 2:26:56 p.m., Cruz was still firing, according to units on scene. ‘UNITS ADV SHOTS FIRED’ the log read.
At 2:29 p.m., the log indicated responding officers did not know where Cruz was. ‘UKNOWN SHOOTER LOCATION,’ the log read.
At 2:30 another active shooter call was logged, that a mother of a student advised, ‘HE HEARD SHOTS FIRED HE IS IN 11th GRADE IN A MATH CLASS UNK ROOM NUMBER.’
At this point, eleven minutes after it was believed Cruz first opened fire, the log indicated one of the commanding officers started ordering responding officers to begin forming a perimeter, which one law enforcement source said would go against all training to first neutralize the threat.
At 2:32 p.m., the dispatch call log indicated the first command to form a perimeter was issued, ‘17S1…NEED PERIMETER.’
Sources told Fox News the 17S1 insignia on the log that day is important because it is the insignia, or code, for who was making the commands. 17S1 stands for 17 Sierra One.
A short while later, as the dispatch log indicated the whereabouts of the shooter was unknown; the first command to ‘stage’ apparently was given.
According to LI, via the Miami Herald, the order to form a perimeter was given by Captain Jan Jordan, commander of the Parkland district. It seems reasonable to believe the shooting lasted only about seven minutes. The shooting in Newtown, by comparison, lasted about 10 minutes. Media reports also suggest the deputies experienced unspecified system-wide radio failures during the incident, which was apparently a known, unresolved problem.
Also keep in mind, gentle readers, officers depend on dispatchers to take and screen calls, and to pass on information to them. This takes time. Consider my experience with a drunk driver. The first call from a citizen reported he was driving on the wrong side of the road–on the sidewalk! For the next 20 minutes, I rushed, lights flashing, from place to place, arriving at locations where various citizens saw him putting people in incredible danger, but I always arrived at least five minutes behind real time. I only found and arrested the guy because an off-duty volunteer fireman had his issued portable radio with him, and followed the drunk at a safe distance. His radio closed the time gap to only a minute or two, but without him, I never would have found the guy. It wasn’t the dispatcher’s fault. By the time they got the information, it was already minutes old. It took more time for them to get understandable location information, which was often mistaken, so it was already at least four minutes old by the time I got it by radio, and my radio was working properly.
It seems other first responders also had difficulties, as Fox News reports:
Three high-ranking Florida officials close to the law enforcement response at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tell Fox News there was a delay in Emergency Medical Service getting into the school in the critical moments after Nikolas Cruz allegedly opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding at least 14 others.
Two separate sources told Fox News some of the EMS teams who requested to enter the school were told they could not. One source said it was the Broward County Sheriff’s Office – which was the commanding office – that ordered some of the EMS crews not to go into the school when they requested to enter.
‘What’s going to come out is, in the communications on several circumstances, there was the request to enter… the request was denied from Broward County,’ a Florida official told Fox News.
‘When you have a police agency saying we don’t want you going in, that’s a problem,’ another Florida official said. ‘The training since Columbine has been [that] first responders, police go in immediately with paramedics.
If we assume this is accurate, we still don’t know what coordination of policy and procedure was in effect between all the agencies involved, and again, without an authoritative timeline, constructed from dispatch and call records, and the testimony of every involved officer and others, it’s impossible to know exactly what happened and why. We don’t know who denied medics entry or why, nor do we know where they were and when. We also don’t know how any of this is related to the brief span of shooting.
Retired Deputy Scott Peterson has stated he did not enter Building 12 because he thought the shooting was coming from outside the building. Is this possible? There is nothing currently known that would conclusively prove otherwise. The recent release of some radio call transcripts suggest Peterson might have transmitted requests to keep people 500 feet away from the building, which would seem to support his account, and also confirm the order to form a perimeter. We cannot know, for the time being, if, considering what officers knew at the time, the order to set a perimeter was wrong. There is also the matter of at least four other deputies remaining outside the building. Were all cowards?
Some are suggesting Peterson’s possible radio traffic proves he lied, apparently because he may have apparently believed something one minute, but a few minutes later, may have believed something else. Again, we don’t know enough to draw conclusions. Officers involved in such situations find their perceptions changing from minute to minute as new information becomes available. Peterson obviously was not alone in apparently following orders, and in trying to carry them out. We do not know what he heard, saw and experienced. We also don’t know if Peterson entering the building when it was possible for him to do so–even if he knew or should have known the shooter was within–would have made the slightest difference. Remember, the shooting only spanned about seven minutes.
We do not know what the Broward County Sheriff’s Office active shooter response policy was. We don’t know how it was implemented, or even if Deputies were aware of it. We don’t know what training they received or when. We know very little about that agency and its institutional culture, and Sheriff Israel is not being helpful in fostering transparency.
In suspending Deputy Peterson, apparently after receiving media accounts of his supposed “cowardice,” Sheriff Israel acted hastily and unprofessionally. He lost the trust of every deputy who now has to wonder if he’ll be thrown to the wolves in a hairy situation. To this day, no one knows precisely what happened, and a complete timeline, absolutely necessary as a baseline for investigation and understanding, does not exist, certainly not in the public sphere. There is substantial information suggesting Peterson and other deputies were doing precisely what they had been ordered to do. That they may have done something else–against orders–must not be held against them unless they knew their orders were unlawful.
But why didn’t they disobey orders! They could have saved lives! Any officer disobeying a Captain’s orders in a situation like that would, at the very least, have been heavily disciplined, and likely, fired. Even if they did enter and it could be conclusively proved their disobedience of orders was instrumental in taking down the bad guy and saving lives, they would have been in major trouble. Remember, we don’t have the timeline. We don’t know if they were actually in a position, at the right time, to have made a difference. Officers don’t disobey orders because they know they don’t have all the information a commander might have. Disobeying might well cause great harm. The only possible reason for disobeying such orders would be if an officer were certain their commander didn’t know what he did, would do what he was about to do if they did, and lacking time to explain this to his commander, he must act immediately to prevent disaster. We don’t know the truth of any of these possibilities at the moment.
Was it possible for Peterson and other officers to believe the shooter was somewhere outside Building 12? It is. Gunshots, even if the officers heard them, within enclosed spaces, make position locating difficult, perhaps impossible. Even if an officer broadcast: “shots fired outside,” or “shots fired in the building,” he may have been making that radio call based on his own observations, which may or may not have been accurate, what he had been told by students or teachers fleeing in panic, or via other officers who received their information from similar sources. That’s why it’s so vital to do a complete, professional investigation before suspending people and making public statements about their actions.
Why did Peterson suddenly retire if he wasn’t guilty of something? You’re kidding, right? Peterson had to have realized he was going to be the very model of a scapegoat. His own Sheriff was already looking for people to blame, and he was number one on that hit list. I suspect that if Israel is eventually removed from office, we’ll discover he was not only a less than brilliant cop and leader, he was also a prickly and vindictive one as well. Only then will people that work for him feel capable of speaking freely.
Was Peterson a coward? The other deputies? It’s possible, but we just don’t know.
One final matter for now: survivors. We are hearing all manner of “Parkland survivors,” holding forth on matters of national policy, particularly gun control. These are commonly students at Douglas High School. It’s clear they are being not only supported, but financed and coached by the usual suspect organizations that swarm around such events like vultures, but this time all are claiming we must have gun control, etc. because the children are “eloquent,” and they’re children, and they’re “survivors,” so this time it’s different, and we must “listen to the survivors” and do what they say and shred the Bill of Rights.
Dictionaries commonly define “survivor” as one who has continued to prosper or function, or has continued to exist or live after some damaging or deadly event. I suspect one would find, if any media talking head bothered to ask, is many of these “survivors” were never in danger. They were not in Building 12, and most claim survivor status primarily for attending Douglas High School on February 14, 2018.
I do not demean those that were actually in the line of fire, or who may have been traumatized by the injuries or deaths of friends or fellow students. They deserve, and are getting, the support of those closest to them, people in a position to actually be helpful to them rather than manipulating them for political ends (people that will, when their usefulness is at an end, discard them). I suggest only that we must judge the qualifications of those that claim a special moral superiority by virtue of their experience on the nature of that experience. We must make such judgments with sobriety, because law inspired by, and written in, a state of emotion is always bad law.
The Parkland case archive is available here.