An Epic Fail

You cannot imagine how much it pains me to write this. When I teach policing to my college criminal justice students, I explain to them that while I will be the first to defend justifiable actions of police officers who stand wrongly accused by the public, I will also be the first to condemn law enforcement officers who are clearly in the wrong. This is one of those times where I must condemn the supposed actions of fellow law enforcement officers.

The infamous massacre at Columbine High School occurred on April 20, 1999. Prior to and during that event, law enforcement response protocol for a “shots fired” event had been for uniformed street personnel to surround the site, establish a perimeter and contain the scene while SWAT was summoned to deal with the actual threat. Basically, the strategy was to treat it the same as a hostage barricade. The problem was that the event at Columbine wasn’t a hostage barricade.

Columbine was one of the first mass shootings where law enforcement arrived while the shooting was still ongoing. The officers established a perimeter, and summoned SWAT, even though shots were still being fired inside and students were dying. Precious seconds and lives were being lost while they waited. They were following protocol developed years before.

The Columbine Massacre initiated a paradigm shift in how law enforcement would deal with future shooting events involving active shooters. New tactics and training were developed for street patrol officers to use to immediately counter the threat instead of waiting for SWAT.

I was fortunate enough to be working SWAT when the new training model, referred to locally as QUAD, became the standard operating procedure. Using QUAD, the first four officers arriving at an active shooter event would immediately enter the scene to neutralize the threat. We implemented it at my former sheriff’s office, and my SWAT team was tasked with training our deputies and other county LE agencies in the new tactics. While doing so, we uncovered an issue. In a county our size — with limited manpower — we couldn’t wait until a total of four deputies or officers from other agencies showed up before going in. We changed the proposed general order (which REQUIRED that we wait for a team of four) to allow one officer to go in alone to neutralize the threat. The most important takeaway from this is that the first officers DON’T establish a perimeter. They go in!

Other law enforcement agencies also realized that they, too, did not have the luxury of waiting until “enough” units showed up, so the paradigm shifted again. The current accepted protocol is that one officer should go in and attempt to neutralize an active shooter (in school shootings in particular). The original QUAD model had been a definite improvement over waiting for SWAT teams to arrive, but even that takes too long. Most school shooters were/are punk students who would crumble if confronted by armed law enforcement. The Sandy Hook shooter stopped firing at others and killed himself once he heard sirens coming. In a more recent event, a school resource officer yelled, “Police!” as he ran toward an active shooter in his school, triggering that shooter to stop and kill himself.

I thought everyone in the law enforcement world was on the same page in terms of how we are to respond to an active shooter event. But then along comes the Broward County school shooting in Florida…

This despicable crime has a lot of despicable turns in it that have just come to light. Before the blood had even dried at the scene, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel did two things: First, he blamed the NRA (and thus every gun owner) for the attack. Second, he called for an “assault weapons ban” as a way to prevent attacks like this in the future. But there were ugly secrets lurking in the background.

I knew that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had to have at least one School Resource Officer (SRO) on duty — as it turned out, there were two — but Sheriff Israel was strangely quiet about their actions during the shooting. Further, when reporters asked which agency went in first (Coral Springs PD was also there), the Sheriff deflected by saying that it didn’t matter who went in first or when; it just mattered that the job got done.

Well now, as it turns out, reports indicate that the available SRO didn’t engage the shooter at all, and not because he wasn’t on the property or too far away to get involved in time; he was right there — positioned OUTSIDE the building, behind cover, with his pistol drawn. While this would have been an acceptable operational procedure 20 years ago, it sure isn’t now. He was captured on surveillance video, hiding, while the children he was responsible for inside were being shot. What is really disgraceful is that he was bound to know some, if not all, of the victims, since he had been working as an SRO for years, and even received the SRO of the Year award in 2014. (For exactly what I’m not sure.)

The SRO, who was 59, was confronted with the video, and chose to immediately resign/retire. When I found this out, I was pretty incensed that Sheriff Israel knew this and tried to cover it up by blaming me, and the millions of other gun owners out there, for this heinous act by a lone, evil gunman. But the worst (perhaps) was yet to come.

We already knew that the FBI had been given two solid pieces of information about the “professional school shooter” who was going to attack the school — and did nothing. Then, we found out that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to somewhere around 36 911 calls to deal with the future shooter and the violent fights he was having with his mother and younger brother over a period of around two years. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office also did nothing. In fact, as it turns out, in February 2014, the now-retired SRO was given information that the future shooter, while he was still a student, was threatening to shoot the school up back then — and did nothing. Anyone see a pattern here? There were multiple missed opportunities that were not taken to stop the shooter years before the Ash Wednesday massacre.

The final affront was reported yesterday. Sheriff Israel could no longer conceal it, because some of the Coral Springs PD Officers had had enough. They reported to CNN that the SRO wasn’t the only deputy to exhibit cowardice under fire. There were, apparently, three additional BCSO deputies hiding behind their cruisers as the Coral Springs officers who had come to assist made entry. NONE of the BCSO units on scene — the very first to arrive — made any attempt to go in. A couple of BCSO units who arrived later went in with the Coral Springs officers. Sheriff Israel could no longer cover up HIS department’s lack of action by trying to blame gun owners and the NRA. The truth had come out. This horrible event could have been stopped at so many junctures — but it wasn’t.

I don’t know what will happen to the other three deputies who hid. And, what about the sheriff? He is an elected official and is subject to a recall petition, which might be worthwhile just for the attempted cover-up alone.

In the end, there is one lesson from all this that should be seared on everyone’s mind: The government cannot protect us when we need it most. Why do you think I have carried an off-duty handgun every day for over 38 years? If I had confidence in other officers being there to protect me and mine when we needed it the most, I wouldn’t need to carry every day. But that isn’t the case.

And one last point: Those (like Sheriff Israel) who oppose arming school staff are still telling us, even after all these revelations, that only armed professional law enforcement officers should be given that task. Yeah. Right.

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