A Brief, Partial, and Contingent Defense of the Cops Who Waited

As the media puts together a still-evolving account of what happened during the school shooting in Florida, it now appears that as many as four Broward County Sheriff’s deputies were at the scene early on during the shooting, including school resource officer Scott Petersen, yet did not enter the school to confront the shooter, even as he continued shooting students.

According to CNN, Coral Springs police officers say they found Peterson and three other deputies outside the school with their pistols drawn and behind their vehicles. With direction from the Broward deputies, Coral Springs police entered the building where the shooter, later identified as Nikolas Cruz, was. Two deputies who arrived later and an officer from Sunrise, Florida, joined Coral Springs police as they went into the building. Per CNN, a report on what happened will likely be released next week.

This made me furious. As someone who covers issues that evoke a lot of criticism of law enforcement, I’ve lost count of how many times some cop has responded with some variation of, “You’re complaining now, but when you need us, you’ll be begging for our help!”

Yet when the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School needed help the most, these police officers did nothing.


Until we get a more complete account, including a better picture of the tactical situation at the school, I’m inclined to reserve judgement on the individual officers. While I have a lot of doubts, I can imagine some legitimate reasons why the deputies might wait.

I will say, however, that I’m not impressed by the “What could they do against an AR-15?” argument. First of all, I think some of these people are confusing the semi-automatic (i.e. not a machine gun) AR-15 with its fully-automatic cousins. And second, how would the cops have known that the shooter had an AR-15 when they hadn’t even entered the building?

That said, compared to most handguns, the AR-15 is a really loud weapon. The cops wouldn’t be able to figure out exactly what model of gun he had, but someone familiar with gunfire would probably realize the shooter had a centerfire rifle, and they’d probably know that such a rifle might be powerful enough to penetrate the officers’ body armor.

A rifle would also be more accurate than the officers’ handguns. In a building like a house, that wouldn’t give the shooter much of an advantage: He’d have trouble maneuvering with the weapon in the tight spaces, and any exchange of gunfire would take place at close range which would negate the benefit of the rifle’s superior accuracy. But in a school with wide-open spaces such as a gymnasium or a cafeteria, the shooter would have an advantage, and I sure wouldn’t want to be an officer who’s trying to advance up one of those long corridors against a shooter with a rifle.  Factor in the complication of shooting past fleeing students and it becomes a very difficult tactical situation.

There are other possibilities. According to reports, several officers were hiding behind their cars in the parking lot. Given the size and complex shape of the school building, and the weird way the sound of gunshots can echo off walls, the officers may not have been able to tell where the shots were coming from. Maybe they thought someone was sniping at them from the trees around the school, or maybe they thought the shooter was with them in the lot and they were trying to sneak up on him.

Finally, there’s the question of training. School shootings are incredibly rare. Far more common scenarios involve a small number of people and a bad guy who doesn’t necessarily want to kill anyone, such as a robbery gone wrong, or a suspect taking hostages when cornered by police. These are the situations police train for, and they have usually been taught to secure a perimeter to keep the offender from breaking out. That makes a lot of sense, and it’s what police were trained to do for a long time.

The Columbine school shooting changed that, because while the police were throwing up a cordon around the school, the shooters were killing students. And so police began rethinking their plans. The modern consensus on active shooter situations is that the first officers on the scene should basically charge right in and do their best to find and stop the shooter, or at least pin him down and limit his movement.

But that’s a very dangerous thing to do. It’s an almost military-style calculation: Take a huge risk with your life that, if you survive and succeed, will save a lot of other lives. Until recently, taking those kinds of risks had been discouraged in police departments. Maybe Broward County still discourages it.

So maybe none of the deputies was able to figure out where the shots were coming from. Or maybe they all had different ideas and couldn’t figure out what to do. Or maybe they got stuck in some kind of groupthink, where one influential deputy misunderstood the situation or the appropriate tactics and the rest followed along. Or maybe they were doing what they were trained or ordered to do.

Sheriff Scott Israel is currently throwing his deputies under a bus, claiming to be investigating their behavior while frantically disavowing responsibility for their actions. The thing is, if only one deputy had stayed outside the school, I’d be willing to believe he was derelict in his duty. But when four of the Broward County deputies do the same thing…that suggests something more complicated was going on. And Sheriff Israel seems to be trying desperately to distract us from it.

in Police

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