Panel: Sheriff’s Policy Contributed to Florida Massacre

By TERRY SPENCER | December 17, 2018

The commission investigating a Florida high school massacre heavily criticized the responding sheriff office’s active shooter policy Thursday, saying it contributed to the failure of some deputies to run into the building and confront the gunman.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission found Thursday that Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s policy that deputies “may” confront active shooters rather than “shall” gave some an excuse for not entering the building during the Feb. 14 massacre that left 17 dead. The commission found that several deputies arrived at the school during the shooting but stayed outside, including Scot Peterson, who was assigned to the school.

Israel has attacked Peterson for not entering the building but told commissioners last month he didn’t want deputies engaging in “suicide missions,” which is why he changed the policy to say “may.”

But the commission’s law enforcement members said that could be handled by training deputies how to confront shooters in the safest way possible.

“‘May’ gave them (deputies) the out not to enter,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a commissioner. “They decided to be cowards instead of heroes.”

Israel said in a statement Thursday that he will use the commission’s report “as a basis to conduct our own thorough investigation, and we’ll take appropriate steps to make any necessary improvements.

Peterson retired shortly after the shooting after video showed him going to the three-story building where the shooting happened, pulling his gun and then taking cover outside. In a lawsuit filed by a victim’s father, Peterson’s attorney argued in court Wednesday that the deputy had no legal obligation to confront the shooter – an argument the judge rejected.

Some deputies who arrived within minutes remained outside the school, even after other deputies and police officers from a neighboring city charged inside. The commission said Israel should investigate those deputies and take appropriate disciplinary action.

The commission, meeting in Tallahassee, also found Thursday that the training Broward deputies receive for confronting active shooters is inadequate, pointing to statements several made to commission investigators that they couldn’t remember the last time they were trained and what it included.

The commission criticized the sheriff’s office and FBI for not acting on tips that suspect Nikolas Cruz was a potential school shooter, but said Broward deputies who responded to Cruz’s home numerous times during his teens for minor incidents acted appropriately. Both agencies say they have taken steps to avoid a repeat.

The commission also found that Cruz, a 20-year-old former Stoneman Douglas student, never met the criteria for involuntary mental health confinement and even if he did, that would not have banned him from buying the semiautomatic rifle he used.

The 15-member commission includes law enforcement, education and mental health professionals, a legislator and the fathers of two slain students. The members have been meeting periodically since April and must file a report to Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Jan. 1. It is approving a 400-page report of findings and recommendations.

On Wednesday, the panel recommended 13-1 that the state should allow teachers who volunteer and undergo background checks and extensive training to carry concealed handguns on campus. Supporters argued that even the best response by law enforcement will likely take two to three minutes to confront a shooter, while teachers could do so immediately.

The state teachers union and PTA oppose the proposal, saying adding guns will make schools less safe and that teachers should not also have to be armed guards. There are also concerns about gun accidents and students taking guns from teachers.

After the shooting, Florida law was changed to allow school districts to train and arm employees other than teachers except those who are former or current police officers, current members of the military or Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors. Thirteen of the state’s 67 countywide school districts allow it, mostly in rural areas.

Currently, teachers in 28 states can carry firearms, according to the Crime Prevention Research Center, a conservative nonprofit organization. District approval is required in most states and restrictions and training requirements vary.

Other findings and recommendations approved this week include:

– That police officers assigned to schools undergo annual active shooter training, including for situation when they are alone.

– That neighboring police agencies have radios that can easily communicate with each other. Broward deputies and officers from neighboring cities could not communicate with each other – their radios had a complicated procedure for opening channels to communicate.

– That school districts allow law enforcement live access to their video surveillance systems.

Cruz has pleaded not guilty, but his attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

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