Amid calls for his ouster, a defiant Broward sheriff on Sunday defended his agency’s handling of the school shooting that killed 17 people at a Parkland high school and pushed back against questions about whether local police could have thwarted the attack had they responded differently to a series of calls and tips about confessed killer Nikolas Cruz.
“I can only take responsibility for what I knew about. I exercised my due diligence. I’ve given amazing leadership to this agency,” Sheriff Scott Israel said during a contentious interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Israel, who has come under fire since announcing Thursday that an armed sheriff’s deputy assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School waited outside the freshman building for “upwards of four minutes” as Cruz rampaged inside with an AR-15-style rifle, confirmed that three or more deputies were also waiting outside the building when Coral Springs officers arrived at the school Feb. 14.
It’s not known why those deputies waited, or whether that decision altered the events and consequences of the worst high school shooting in U.S. history. But Israel said investigators are looking into it and will determine if anyone acted improperly.
“Let me be perfectly clear. Our investigation to this point shows that during this horrific attack, while this killer was inside the school, there was only one law enforcement person, period. And that was former deputy Scot Peterson,” Israel said, referring to a school resource officer who resigned last week rather than be fired. “Coral Springs arrived, a group of Coral Springs officers went in within I think about four minutes, we’re projecting, after the killer left the campus. I understand that they’re going to give statements to us regarding the other three, four, five deputies. At this point, we have no reason to believe anyone acted incorrectly or correctly. That’s what an investigation is.”
Israel noted that Peterson is known to have gone on his radio as officers were responding and may have urged other police to establish a perimeter. Israel said that would have suggested that Peterson — “incorrectly” — had eyes on Cruz, and that the shooter was leaving.
“We don’t know what those deputies heard,” he said. “That will be outlined in interviews.”
Details from witnesses and investigators show that Cruz, a 19-year-old former student at the school, took an Uber to the school and walked onto campus shortly before 2:20 p.m. with a semi-automatic rifle and extra magazines of ammo stuffed into a bag. He walked into the school’s freshman building, took out the rifle and began shooting in the hallways and into locked classrooms through windows and walls, killing 14 students, three faculty and wounding 15 more.
Cruz tried at one point to shoot out windows overlooking a courtyard where students were fleeing, but was unable to break through the hurricane-strength glass.
The shooter never encountered a police officer on campus. Clad in an old JROTC polo, he slipped off his gear, shed his rifle and ran out of the school and fled with other students to a nearby Walmart. He wasn’t caught for another hour.
Questions about the police response before and after the shooting have been raised in the days since. Local and federal investigators have come under intense pressure in the wake of revelations that both the FBI and the Broward Sheriff’s Office had received multiple tips that Cruz was talking about shooting up a school.
In November, a caller from Massachussetts was referred to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office after reporting that Cruz was collecting guns and knives, was suicidal and was possibly a “school shooter in the making.” No report was initiated by the Broward Sheriff’s Office after that call. Israel has said that two deputies are on administrative leave pending scrutiny of their handling of two of the 23 calls the Broward Sheriff’s Office received relating to Cruz over a span of 10 years.
The sheriff says the remainder of the calls were handled appropriately.
Israel also defended his decision to wait until after a Wednesday night CNN town hall to disclose Peterson’s failure to try and stop Cruz, and his agency’s detailed history of tips and calls regarding Cruz and his residences. During the town hall, attended by thousands of Parkland students and families at the BB&T Center in Sunrise and watched by millions, Israel received a standing ovation from the audience after calling for a ban of assault rifles.
“I’m not on a timeline for a TV or news show,” Israel said, adding that he wanted to contact the families of all 17 victims about what he knew before releasing the information to the public. “I certainly wouldn’t disclose [that information] to a family at a town hall.”
Israel also slammed a Republican Boca Raton lawmaker who urged Gov. Rick Scott Saturday to remove the sheriff from his position due to “negligence.” The sheriff, a Democrat first elected to office about five years ago, said Rep. Bill Hager’s letter was filled with inaccuracies and was “shameful” and adamantly said he will not resign.
“I’ve led this county proudly as I always have,” Israel said, adding that he would have been the “first man in” if he had been at the school. “Deputies make mistakes. Police officers make mistakes. We all make mistakes. But it’s not the responsibility of the general or the president if you have a deserter.”
Tapper, incredulous, asked Israel if BSO could have prevented the shooting had deputies handled calls differently.
“If its and buts were candy and nuts, OJ Simpson would still be in the record books,” Israel responded.
Tapper: “I don’t know what that means. There are 17 dead people and a whole long list of things that your department could have done differently.”
Israel: “We understand everything wasn’t done perfectly. And if it happened in Los Angeles or Chicago or any other city, every person would have performed perfectly. That’s not what happened. Do I believe had Scot Peterson had went into that building there was a chance he could have neutralized the killer and saved lives? Yes I believe that. But as far as anything else done at this point, I can’t say that.”