As a state commission concluded that the police response to Florida’s deadliest school shooting was marred by mismanagement, prosecutors released official accounts Wednesday from the cops who plunged headfirst into the chaos.
In their words:
“I couldn’t key up the god damn radio. It was just a tone, a tone, a tone,” Broward Sheriff’s SWAT Deputy Brian Hayes said of his attempts to summon medical help for wounded victims inside Building 12 of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
“I couldn’t get out,” said Broward Detective Brian Goolsby, who arrived in time to hear the final shots, and said he tried to jump in his car to hunt for the killer on the streets — only to get trapped on campus by the crush of cop cars arriving from across South Florida.
“It’s basically like a[n] Apocalypse Now,” BSO deputy Hank Juntunen said of the dead and dying whom the officers found when they went up to the building’s third floor.
Prosecutors released the statements of 22 officers interviewed by state agents working with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which met Wednesday in Tallahassee. The commission released a draft report about the police response to the massacre that claimed the lives of 17 students and staff members on Feb. 14.
The commission, established by Gov. Rick Scott to review police response to the shooting, also recommended that teachers basically be allowed to carry firearms to stop a shooter in the first key moments before police officers arrive.
“We have to give people a fighting chance; we have to give them an opportunity to protect themselves,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman.
The confessed shooter, former Stoneman Douglas High student Nikolas Cruz, is awaiting trial on murder charges and faces the death penalty. The shooting drew worldwide media and political attention, spurred student activism and led to a new gun-control law in Florida.
Critics have also assailed the law-enforcement response to the shooting, ripping Broward deputies for failing to enter the building to find Cruz and possibly save lives. Broward Deputy Scot Peterson, the resource officer assigned to the campus, has been roundly vilified for remaining outside while Cruz methodically gunned down victim after victim with a high-powered rifle.
Worst of all: BSO deputies arrived in time to hear gunfire but spent valuable seconds putting on bulletproof vests and gathering equipment instead of rushing toward the freshman building. “The deputies’ actions appear to be a violation of accepted protocol under which the deputies should have immediately moved towards the gunshots,” read a draft report by the commission.
The commission found a host of other problems. Radios failed. Officers from different departments could not communicate. The first Broward Sheriff’s commanders on the scene did not provide clear orders.
The witness statements were taken by agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who turned over the documents to Broward prosecutors preparing for Cruz’s trial.
On Tuesday, the Miami Herald and the Sun-Sentinel filed a lawsuit seeking copies of the statements. On Wednesday, the Broward State Attorney’s Office released the statements to the media.
They reveal first-hand accounts of the chaos, the errors and the successes of that fateful day.
Cruz entered the freshman building and opened fire at 2:21 p.m., and minutes later, Peterson began radioing for help.
One officer could only make out panicked words — the reception in his office was lousy. Another officer dismissed the reports as “possibly a prank or firecrackers,” until gunshots were confirmed 20 seconds later.
Despite the problems, many deputies performed well and in accordance with their training, the commission concluded.
That was in spite of instructions given by Peterson, the disgraced former BSO deputy who retired after the shooting.
“Broward, do not approach the 12 or 1300 buildings,” Peterson radioed soon after Cruz opened fire. “Stay at least 500 feet away.”
Danny Polo didn’t listen.
“I was like, why?” Polo said in his sworn statement. “That doesn’t make any sense... We knew what we were supposed to do. We were supposed to get to the school, go inside the school, find the shooter, stop him.”
Polo, a BSO detective, had driven to Stoneman Douglas as soon as he heard the active-shooter call. Police officers are trained to immediately engage an active shooter, to minimize the casualties they may inflict.
He rushed past BSO Capt. Jan Jordan, the Parkland district commander, who he said was taking cover behind a patrol car, and formed an impromptu team with other deputies who were responding. (Jordan later resigned. She had been hired at BSO in part on Sheriff Scott Israel’s recommendation.)
By that point, Cruz had already fled. But Polo and the other police did not know that as they approached the building.
“I was like, f--k, man,” Polo told investigators. “I don’t wanna be here. I really don’t wanna be here. I don’t wanna go in there. I don’t wanna be in this situation. I just had a baby so it was ... probably the worst day of my life. But I went in there.”
Another BSO officer, William Hanks, joined a group of Coral Springs and one BSO deputy who formed a group to make the first entrance into the building. He said the officers from different departments just “clicked.”
“We paired up and started clearing rooms,” Hanks said.
Still, there was confusion among BSO deputies over the agency’s policy on responding to an active shooter. “It’s up to you,” said Deputy Thomas Cupo, when asked by FDLE whether officers should go in alone or wait for others.
Others described a policy of immediate response: “You go in there, and you save as many as you can. If you’re by yourself, two is better than one. But if you hear active shooting, you run to it,” said Deputy Carlos Gomez.
BSO Deputy Art Perry was one of the cops who didn’t go inside the freshman building, even though he heard gunfire. Instead, he stayed outside to provide “overwatch,” or cover for other officers.
“I don’t know if I ever did realize [the shooting] was in the 1200 building,” Perry told investigators.
Goolsby, the BSO deputy who was among six officers singled out by the commission for failing to enter the building, said he nearly shot at two rifle-wielding cops who appeared suddenly. (Peterson and a BSO sergeant were also criticized.)
Many expressed concern about “blue-on-blue” violence — mistaking a fellow cop for the shooter.
Inside the building there was blood and smoke and dust.
Even though cops had already gone in, not everyone was sure the shooter had fled. Many thought Cruz was still in the building, based on security camera footage that was on a 20-minute delay but relayed to them as taking place in real time. And their radios weren’t working.
Broward SWAT officers, who had been training at a nearby park, rushed to the school and found themselves in the fog of bad information. SWAT Sgt. Chris Hickox recalled that an officer on the scene told him the suspect may have “deployed some gas or chemical agent” and was still inside.
“It started becoming apparent that there was bad information, which is to be expected,” Hickox said.
David Jacques, also a SWAT officer, remembered that a few officers were on the first floor, pointing that “the shooter was upstairs.”
By then, Cruz had left and officers and medics began treating the wounded, or putting them on golf carts to ferry out of the school.
On the third floor, Polo and other deputies found student Anthony Borges. He had been shot repeatedly in both legs and his abdomen. A bullet pierced his lung.
“He was bleeding from his leg, [there] was blood everywhere” said Polo, who tried to stop the bleeding. “I was like, shit. I was like, I need another tourniquet. Need another tourniquet.”
A SWAT medic helped.
“He started packing the wound,” Polo said. “Packed the wound, packed the wound.”
Even after it became clear the immediate danger had passed and Cruz was captured, confusion reigned. Peterson, the school resource officer, was “distraught” and sat down in the back of a BSO SWAT armored vehicle to recover, according to Deputy Robert Rausch, one of the vehicle’s drivers.
“They were just trying to let him sit in the air conditioning and — and hang out,” said Rausch. “I just remembered seeing him flustered and... apparently he needed to sit down and have a drink of water, sit in the A/C.”
BSO deputy Yausel Pompa said he could barely even get to Stoneman Douglas. Holmberg Road outside the school was jammed. That echoed criticisms of BSO’s response to a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017.
“The whole road was full of law enforcement ... hundreds of vehicles,” Pompa said. “I was trying to get there to respond and I couldn’t. So I had to kind of go over the median and try to get ... as close as possible.”