Broward County

‘We need to get these radios patched.’ Communication problems hindered police at Parkland shooting

A traumatized Marjory Stoneman Douglas student is assisted by a law enforcement officer after she and hundreds of classmates were able to flee the high school where Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, killing 17, on Feb. 14.
A traumatized Marjory Stoneman Douglas student is assisted by a law enforcement officer after she and hundreds of classmates were able to flee the high school where Nikolas Cruz opened fire with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, killing 17, on Feb. 14. Sun Sentinel

Coral Springs police officers responding to the deadly Parkland high school shooting were hampered by communication problems and misinformation, possibly delaying the rescue of victims, according to recordings of police radio chatter released by the city Wednesday.

Both Coral Springs officers and Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies responded to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after reports of an active shooter. But because the two departments use different 911 dispatch centers and radio systems, they could not coordinate.

“We need to get these radios patched with BSO,” one Coral Springs officer said over the radio about 10 minutes into the recording. “We’re kind of running two separate operations.”

Trauma experts say the first few chaotic minutes of response to a mass shooting are the most crucial. That’s when lives are saved — or lost.

“It takes two minutes to bleed out if you’re hit in a major artery,” said Greg Shaffer, a retired FBI special agent who served on the agency’s Hostage Rescue Team.

But the confusion evident on the radio about where shooter Nikolas Cruz was — and what police should do — seems to have delayed first responders. For instance, authorities were watching footage of Cruz’s movements on a 20-minute delay from the school’s security room — but were communicating over the radio as if the video were live. And Coral Springs officers rushing toward the building where the shooting happened didn’t know the location of BSO deputies, who should have gone in first. The city of Parkland is policed by BSO.

The Coral Springs Police Department released a batch of 911 calls made during an active shooter event that left 17 people dead at Douglas high school on Feb. 14, 2018.

“BSO is inside, correct?” one Coral Springs officer said over the radio.

“Right now, we’re hearing no,” another replied.

“I’m with BSO, they said they’re not inside,” said a third. “They’re said they’re outside.”

Meanwhile, teachers and students were begging police dispatchers to send help for the wounded. Seventeen people died during the Feb. 14 massacre. Another 15 were wounded.

Coral Springs officers entered the building before BSO did, about five minutes after the shooting stopped. They had been told by dispatch that there were victims inside the building.

“We have [evacuated] a couple of people out of here,” an officer said. “We are going to start moving up.”

Cruz had escaped by that point and would elude capture for more than an hour. But confusion about the video delay had officers believing he was still in the building — and the radio chatter suggests that misinformation delayed officers from helping victims as they searched for an active shooter.

“Be advised we’ve got [Cruz] on video,” one officer said. “Seen coming from third floor to the second floor.”

Dispatch then echoed the message: “BSO is advising they are monitoring the suspect on the second floor."

One officer said he would not evacuate students from a second-floor classroom until the shooter was found.

“We are going to have them shelter in place with a police officer in the room with them until we can locate our shooter,” he said

Half an hour into the incident, another officer seemed to ask permission to tend to a third-floor victim, asking if the coast was clear to proceed. “We’ve got a victim down in the hallway. Clear to go get him? He’s got gunshot wounds. On the third floor.”

It was around the time that officers realized there was a time delay.

After dispatch reported that Cruz was being seen on video leaving the building, a frustrated officer corrected his colleague.

“It was 20 minutes ago,” he said.

In February, former Coral Springs Police Chief Tony Pustizzi said that the camera delay did not prevent first responders from aiding the wounded.

If anything, it was the opposite, Pustizzi said at a news conference.

“Our officers were more expeditious in trying to get into that school” because they thought the shooter was still there, he said.

“We pulled out 23 people,” he added. “Twenty out of 23 survived.”

He could not be reached for comment by the Herald late Wednesday.

There’s been plenty of finger-pointing since the shooting.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel has blamed Stoneman Douglas’ school resource officer, BSO Deputy Scot Peterson, who was first on the scene, for not entering the building immediately and confronting Cruz before the shooter fled.

Peterson warned other law enforcement officers not to approach the building, according to a preliminary timeline released by BSO. The agency has not yet released recordings of its deputies’ radio transmissions, as Coral Springs did Wednesday.

The first Coral Springs officer to arrive at the school, Tim Burton, may also have been confused by Peterson, who has said he thought the shooting was happening outside.

“I’m with Douglas’ SRO getting info,” Burton said on the radio. The Coral Springs officer had his rifle but did not immediately enter the building.

Pustizzi, who retired earlier this month, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday that the confusion cost first responders crucial minutes.

He said Burton “didn’t know where to go.”

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

Students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School poured out onto the school's football field to mark the one month anniversary of the school's deadly shooting Wednesday Feb. 14, 2018. Middle school students from nearby Westglades Middle School mar

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