The head of a state-appointed commission responsible for investigating the Parkland high school shooting — and how police responded to the massacre — urged the public on Thursday to hold off on bashing Broward deputies without taking into account the serious communication issues that hampered their response.
Specifically, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri — the chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission — used his very public platform to soften criticism that critics have hurled at BSO Captain Jan Jordan since the Feb. 14 shooting that killed 17 students and faculty members.
He argued that communications failures, like the overloading of BSO’s radio system and the inability to effectively transmit to the Coral Springs PD’s radio system, hindered Jordan’s ability to speak with her deputies and get a grip on the situation.
“The fact there was not interoperability of radios and that the first responders, the law-enforcement first responders, couldn’t all talk to each other impacted the response. There’s no question about it,” Gualtieri said. “A lot’s been made about what she did or didn’t do. She gets on the radio to try and take control of the situation. What’s she gonna do? The thing becomes a brick. Turn it off and throw it away.”
On the afternoon of the shooting, analysts have noted, documented inbound radio requests exceeded the roughly 250-request limit Broward’s radio system can handle per minute to a staggering 750 inbound requests.
The commission met Thursday morning at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. It was the third meeting of the week for the panel, which will meet again next month.
Jordan, the commanding officer in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, has been lambasted for her decision to instruct deputies to form a perimeter around the school and, according to the Coral Springs Fire Department, for declining requests to send specialized medical personnel into the school’s 1200 building, where the shooting occurred.
Gualtieri, who said he could not remark on whether Jordan’s actions were good or bad, said it is clear Jordan could not take control of the situation because of the radio breakdown.
“I didn’t go out of my way to defend her,” Gualtieri said. “What I went out of my way to do was to defend objectivity and to defend the need for factual opinions. … And if somebody’s gonna criticize anyone, whether it’s Capt. Jordan or anybody else, they need to know what that person had available to them at the time and what they tried to do or didn’t try and do, and the knowledge they had when they made the decisions they made or didn’t make.”
Within days of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the actions of Broward Sheriff’s deputies who responded to the massacre came under fire. Four deputies did not immediately enter the school as dozens of students and staff members lay gravely injured inside the Parkland school.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ then-school resource officer, Scot Peterson, the first officer on the scene, did not confront the shooter. A gunman slipped inside carrying an AR-15 and shot 34 people, killing 17.
Parkland does not have its own fire rescue or police department. The city has a fire contract with Coral Springs Fire Rescue and a police contract with BSO. Coral Springs is one of two cities that has not joined Broward County’s regional communications web.
Cellphone calls made from inside the school during the shooting went to Coral Springs’ call center although BSO is the agency contractually obligated to respond to crime scenes in Parkland.
Coral Springs PD and BSO operate on separate radio systems. As the host agency during the shooting, BSO would normally be obligated to patch through to the radio system of an assisting agency, but BSO did not have access to the system’s main channel.
A patch was set up after a service officer from BSO requested Coral Springs dispatchers create one.
“That patch stayed up for 6 hours and 19 minutes,” said Coral Springs Police Deputy Chief Shawn Backer. “We’re not 100 percent convinced that is entirely accurate. We’re not sure everybody could hear.”
The Broward system’s backlog of requests made matters worse. A new system expected to go online next year will provide greater bandwidth and prevent the throttling, but Coral Springs has not yet decided if it will integrate.
For the time being, the county and Coral Springs have reached an agreement to make each other’s radio channels available to facilitate future communications.
In 2013, a consultant hired by Coral Springs advised against joining the Broward system due to coverage and capacity concerns, and reservations over outsourcing local dispatchers with a unique familiarity with the Coral Springs area. “It all comes down to local politics and local control,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a member of the commission.
“Are you interested in that or are you interested in what is ultimately the best response for the citizens?” Sheriff Gualtieri gave Coral Springs PD and Broward County a July 20 deadline to provide a detailed list of conditions each party wants met before integration can happen.
Both parties agreed. Operations Deputy Chief Bradley Mckeone said he was on board with integrating the systems, even if just partially.
“It’s what we need to do,” he said during testimony. “We need to be a little flexible. … I think it’s something that needs to take place tomorrow.”