In School Shooting's Painful Aftermath, Sheriff Faces Questions Over Police Response
CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — The Broward County sheriff on Wednesday defended his office’s response to one of the deadliest school shootings in American history amid questions over whether some of his deputies hung back instead of pursuing the gunman accused of killing 17 people.
Sheriff Scott Israel said that, to his knowledge, deputies followed protocol and did not wait for specialized teams to arrive before going into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. But he said that details over the office’s response remained unclear.
“That’s exactly what we’re examining,” Sheriff Israel said, noting that active shooter protocols require confronting suspects as quickly as possible. “You don’t wait for SWAT, you get in, and you push toward the shooter.”
The sheriff’s response comes a week after Nikolas Cruz was accused of opening fire at his former school with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and as parents, students and school administrators continue to struggle to make sense of what happened.
After the attack, Mr. Cruz slipped away on foot seven minutes after the gunfire began and was ultimately stopped by an officer from a neighboring police department.
Sheriff Israel also said that the only armed guard at Stoneman Douglas High, Deputy Scot Peterson, never discharged his gun during the shooting.
“The response and actions of Deputy Peterson will be looked at and scrutinized, as will everyone’s,” Sheriff Israel said, adding that trained deputies would begin carrying rifles on school grounds.
Interviews with law enforcement officers, parents and students, as well as a review of police radio traffic immediately after the shooting, make clear the widespread confusion among the authorities.
Many emergency medical workers had no idea where the suspect was for at least 30 minutes after the gunfire erupted, and the authorities struggled to identify him for another 15 minutes.
All the while, rescue workers tended to victims under the cover of officers with long rifles, some of whom appear to have entered the school less than 10 minutes after the gunfire began — but just after the suspect fled.
For as long as 45 minutes after the shooting stopped, some students were still cowering behind locked doors, unsure if the person banging on their door was a police officer or the gunman, according to students.
Outside the high school after the shooting. Interviews make it clear that there was a lot of confusion among those at the school.CreditSaul Martinez for The New York Times
By the time Avril Engelhart, a 15-year-old freshman, heard the police enter the freshman building, where she was hiding inside her English classroom, maybe 10 minutes had passed since the gunman began firing, she said.
“He wasn’t really shooting anymore,” she said. “We could hear them outside our door, and on the police walkie-talkie, we heard them say, ‘We have a victim down.’ And people started crying.”
To be sure, mass shootings are always chaotic and, despite the best efforts of trained police officers and emergency medical workers, the authorities often struggle with figuring out how to stop a gunman set on inflicting grievous harm in a matter of minutes.
“They’re all pretty much the same in that it’s over in three to five minutes,” said Al Lamberti, Sheriff Israel’s predecessor, referring to the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings. “We have to learn from this, just like we did from the others.”
For parents and students, the whereabouts of the campus deputy has remained a troubling question. Sheriff Israel reiterated that Deputy Peterson was elsewhere on campus, but would not say where.
A second deputy, assigned to Westglades Middle School adjacent to the high school, was away on training last Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said.
“Where was the only guy with a gun when this happened?” asked Karen Dietrich, a Fort Lauderdale police officer whose two sons attend Stoneman Douglas High and survived the massacre. “I realize it’s a large campus, and he may have been on the other side, I don’t know.
But it would not take six minutes on a full run to get from one end to the other.”
Tim Burton, a Coral Springs police officer assigned to a nearby elementary school, responded to the shooting. He said in an interview on Wednesday that he had seen Deputy Peterson in a Stoneman Douglas High parking lot, where at least one school employee believed the gunman might be.
Deputy Peterson “was seeking cover behind a concrete column leading to a stairwell,” said Officer Burton, who worried the gunman could be lurking in the lot because he heard no gunshots or screams to guide him toward the site of the shooting.
Deputy Peterson, who has been in law enforcement for more than 30 years, could not be reached for comment, and no one answered the door at his home in neighboring Palm Beach County. The Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, a labor union, said Deputy Peterson has not sought representation from the association since the shooting.
He remains on active duty, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office said.
Sheriff Israel, who immediately after the shooting praised his department’s response, abruptly called a news conference on Wednesday to extend plaudits to other police departments, including Coral Springs, whose officers said they were the first to arrive at the high school, which is in the neighboring city of Parkland.
Sheriff Scott Israel of Broward County has defended his office’s response to the shooting.CreditAl Drago for The New York Times
“I don’t know what deputies or police officers went in first, or in what order they arrived,” Sheriff Israel said. “This is a fluid investigation.”
Among the first to respond was Sgt. Jeff Heinrich, an off-duty Coral Springs police officer who was doing maintenance work on the baseball field when he heard gunfire. He saw students running, heard screams and got to work, treating a boy with a gunshot wound.
He eventually grabbed a fellow officer’s extra weapon, slipped on a bullet-resistant vest and started searching the school, where his wife teaches physical education and his son is in the 11th grade.
“When those shots ring out, you have a job to do,” Sergeant Heinrich said in an interview on Wednesday. “Everybody’s instinct is to go the other way. You have to fight that instinct.”
The shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 fundamentally changed police protocol amid fears that a gunman or gunmen equipped with semiautomatic weapons would be capable of killing dozens of people in a matter of moments. Officers, their patrol cars now stocked with supplies like rifles, ballistic helmets and trauma care kits, are now trained to seek gunmen urgently, even if they have no backup or only limited information.
Sheriff Israel, however, noted in a local television interview on Wednesday that he learned after the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, in January 2017, that it was not always helpful for deputies to rush into an active scene.
“One of the key lessons we learned from the airport was the phenomenon of self-dispatching and not allowing deputies and police officers from all over the tri-county area to just arrive haphazardly,” he told the local CBS affiliate. “People who came went to a staging area, and they were inserted into the mission in a common-sense way, and everybody had a job to do.”
Not a single law enforcement officer appears to have fired their gun inside Stoneman Douglas High — an indication of how little the police could do once the suspect had fled after firing more than 100 rounds down the hallways and into four classrooms on two floors of the freshman building.
The authorities said he had enough time to make it to the third floor to take off a tactical vest and drop off his weapon and high-capacity magazines in a stairwell.
“There were a lot of kids screaming, officers just trying to get into doorways, trying to find not only the bad guy, but grab victims, trying to reach victims, pull them out and get them to fire-rescue as quickly as possible for transport,” recalled Sgt. Carla Kmiotek of Coral Springs, who oversees training for her department and was one of the first officers to enter the building.
As she searched the high school, she said, “I had a talk with myself, accepting that I could end up getting killed in this incident.”
Sergeant Heinrich, who in 2016 arrested an armed boy at nearby Coral Springs High School, said his response to the shooting had felt automated.
“This is go-time,” he said. “This is what we train for. This is what we do.”
The teenager Sergeant Heinrich had begun to treat survived the shooting, but remains hospitalized.
The sergeant is planning to visit on Thursday for his first meeting with him since their encounter at the school. When he goes, he will be returning the teenager’s backpack, which had been lost in the chaos. Alan Blinder reported from Coral Springs, and Richard A.
Oppel Jr. and Patricia Mazzei from New York.
Reporting was contributed by Nick Madigan from Miami; Neil Reisner from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Julie Turkewitz from Tallahassee, Fla.; Jess Bidgood from Boston; Adam Goldman and Ali Watkins from Washington; and Timothy Williams from New York.
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: In Painful Aftermath, Sheriff Is Facing Questions About the Response. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe