In the crucial first minutes after a gunman began shooting students and staff at a Florida high school, law enforcement’s response was hampered by quirks in the local 911 system that caused many calls from inside the school to be transferred, the chairman of a commission investigating the massacre said.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chair of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, said Wednesday that the dual dispatch system used by the city of Parkland delayed getting responding police officers and sheriff’s deputies timely information during the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead and 17 wounded.
Parkland, where the school is located, gets police service from the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and fire and paramedic service from the neighboring city of Coral Springs, which also has a police department. Cellular 911 calls from Parkland go to Coral Springs. Those callers needing police are transferred to Broward County’s 911 center. Almost all calls from Stoneman Douglas were from cellphones, which had to be transferred. That added about 30 seconds before each reached a dispatcher – if the call wasn’t disconnected.
Coral Springs is one of two Broward cities that aren’t part of the countywide 911 system. Gualtieri believes that needs to end.
“The problem is that you have not one truly consolidated 911 center in Broward County,” Gualtieri said. “People who call 911 and need help immediately, the person who took the call cannot get them the help they need.” He said that is not unique to Broward – it is a problem nationwide, particularly with cell calls to 911.
After testifying before the commission, Shawn Backer, deputy chief of the Coral Springs Police Department, told reporters it is too early to say whether the bifurcated system created any significant delays in the response. He said Broward sheriff’s deputies and Coral Springs officers who responded to the school were quickly able to establish communications.
“I wouldn’t say there was a failure of communication. The boots on the ground, the officers that were there, were in contact with deputies from the sheriff’s office instantaneously and were able to share information in person,” he said.
He said one reason Coral Springs has stayed out of the county 911 system is it doesn’t want to lose the “hometown feel,” relaying a story about a woman who drove into a city canal. She didn’t know where she was but the Coral Springs dispatcher figured it out by the landmarks she saw, something a county dispatcher would not have been able to do.
Commissioner Max Schachter, whose son Alex died in the shooting, said the systems need to be merged because any delay is unacceptable.
The commission, which includes law enforcement, educators, a legislator, parents of slain students and others, is in the middle of a three-day monthly meeting as it examines the massacre’s causes. It will issue a report by the end of the year and make recommendations to prevent future school shootings. The commission is scheduled Thursday to discuss the state’s gun purchase laws and its mental health system.
Meanwhile, suspect Nikolas Cruz allegedly told a woman months before the shooting that he might attack the school and that he might even kill her – but she never called police.
Giovanna Cantone’s statement was one of many made public Wednesday as part of the prosecution of 19-year-old Cruz. Also released were more accounts from people who knew Cruz, including his brother Zachary.
Cantone told a detective that she was at the Dollar Tree store where her daughter and Cruz worked last summer. She said she told Cruz he had other options after getting expelled from Stoneman Douglas.
“He said, ah, I can go shoot them and you know I can shoot you too,” Cantone said. “I says this guy is like, you know, talking kind of crazy. I’m not used to those things.”’
But Cantone said she never reported the conversation to authorities, although she did call an FBI hotline after the killings.
“I let it go. I’m sorry I did that, you know, but then I understand that a lot of people came forward,” she said. Others told the FBI and Broward Sheriff’s Office before the massacre that Cruz might commit a school shooting, but that was never investigated.
Zachary Cruz, 18, said his brother changed after their mother, Lynda, died in November. He was asked why he thought Nikolas Cruz would attack the school.
“I think just because he lost hope in life,” Zachary Cruz replied. “He’d be telling me, like, dude, I don’t even want to live any more.”
Nikolas Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder. His attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
(Anderson reported from Fort Lauderdale.)
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