Broward County

‘It was chaos’: Radio problems slowed police at Parkland as lives hung in the balance

As Broward Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Christopher Palamara approached the high school building where Nikolas Cruz shot 34 people, first responders carried out a young woman who had been badly wounded on the third floor.

She was barely clinging to life.

“I guess she had a pulse up top,” Palamara told Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents investigating the police response to Florida’s worst school shooting. “When they got back downstairs and started to triage her, she was gone. So they kinda pushed her off to the side and went back for more.”

The latest release of state investigative documents on Friday underlined how delay and confusion in the police response may have worsened the death toll at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When killers use high-powered weapons in mass shootings, as in the Feb. 14 Parkland school massacre, experts say the difference between life and death for the wounded can be minutes. It’s crucial to stop the shooter and begin performing first aid as quickly as possible.

At Parkland, the new records — 643 pages of interviews of officers on the scene conducted by FDLE — show that did not happen. BSO deputies who responded to Stoneman Douglas said they were hampered by faulty radios and bad information.

“It was chaos on the radio,” said Sgt. Josen Rotella. “I was using people as runners,” said BSO Lt. Steven O’Neill.

Many also expressed confusion over their active shooter training, the interviews showed.

“We trained in an officer-down or like a rescue shooting kind of situation. But ... never have I received an actual active-shooter training,” said Deputy Christopher Moniz.

And when a BSO dispatcher announced reports of a shooting at Stoneman Douglas, “there was no urgency to her message over the radio,” said Lt. Brian Montgomery. “It was very nonchalant. It was like, almost like an FYI.”

In addition, confusion over how recent the school’s security video was (it was on a 20-minute delay, not live as first responders originally believed) also caused problems.

The video delay meant police were hunting for Cruz after he’d already fled the building.

“I’d be lying to you if I said that didn’t slow things down,” said BSO Sgt. Ian Sklar. “We all could have done more if we didn’t have information the guy’s right here at the time. I’m of no use to you [a wounded victim] if I stop to help you and the guy keeps shooting.”

The Miami Herald and the South Florida Sun Sentinel obtained copies of the statements given by law enforcement after the newspapers filed a lawsuit for the documents, which were turned over to Broward prosecutors preparing for Cruz’s trial. Interviews with 22 officers were released Wednesday. Thirty-seven were released Friday.

Former Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy and school resource officer Scot Peterson resigned after failing to confront shooter Nikolas Cruz. Peterson told other deputies to stay away from where he believed the shooting was happening, in contravention of how police are trained to respond to active shooters.

During meetings of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission last month, commissioners repeatedly compared the efforts of BSO with the Coral Springs Police Department, which also responded.

The first BSO deputies to arrive took cover or spent valuable time putting on bullet-proof vests and adjusting their equipment, sometimes more than a minute. Police protocol says that time is so important during a mass shooting that officers who are not already wearing a vest should go in without it, the commission stated.

Coral Springs officers arrived after BSO deputies but were able to identify the building where the shooting took place and immediately rush in, acting on information from 911 calls that went to their call center but not BSO’s.

“Without hesitation, each [Coral Springs] officer knew the active shooter training they had received annually for the past several years,” states a draft of the commission’s report. “They had no difficulty in identifying the proper response to an active shooter.”

Seventeen people died at Stoneman Douglas. Seventeen people were shot but survived. It took 11 minutes for a group of officers led by Coral Springs to enter the freshman building attacked by Cruz.

In an interview Friday, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said he could not evaluate whether Coral Springs responded more effectively to the crisis than BSO.

“I have no idea. I couldn’t possibly answer that,” Israel said. “There’s no way I could convey what Coral Springs knew. I’ve never talked to one Coral Springs officer.”

BSO will take the commission’s report “extremely seriously,” he added, and conduct a “complete, comprehensive internal affairs.”

The commission concluded that faulty radios, a fragmented 911 system, a lack of training and poor command played a role in BSO’s response. As a large agency, BSO does its active-shooter training in cycles. Before Parkland, the last one was in 2016. Coral Springs trains yearly. BSO has said it has since stepped up the pace of its training.

The commission’s criticism of BSO has put Israel, a Democrat, in a difficult political position. Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis called for Israel’s removal during the campaign. DeSantis, a Republican, recently appointed several vocal critics of the sheriff to his public-safety advisory committee.

“I hold Sheriff Israel responsible for the response that day,” Ryan Petty, a commission member and father of a child slain at Parkland, told the Herald last month. “It is on the sheriff to make sure the policies are right, the training is right and the deputies are ready to go.”

Petty was named to DeSantis’ advisory committee.

cruz inside.png
Nikolas Cruz is shown on surveillance video during the Parkland school massacre. Seventeen people died. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission Courtesy

The Parkland shooting was not the first time the radio system jammed in an emergency, said BSO Detective Roberto Valdes in an interview with FDLE.

The same thing happened on Jan. 6, 2017, when Esteban Santiago opened fire at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport, killing five. “If we had a big event, where you have to patch multiple different channels into the same channels, it would just stop working. The same thing when I went to the airport shooting. It was just chaotic. You couldn’t even key up.”

The radio system is managed by Broward County and is undergoing an upgrade.

There were other communications problems, too.

A BSO dispatcher on her last day of training was staffing the regional communications center for the county’s northern end when the first calls came in about the shooting.

Communications Officer Samantha Oakley told an investigator that after “less than ten minutes” of handling the call, she handed off the main channel to another communications officer.

“I did not feel comfortable handling something that extreme,” Oakley said.

According to BSO’s timeline of events, two minutes into the shooting a dispatcher who may have been Oakley tried to tell deputies over the radio that a person had been shot in the freshman building. The information, which had been passed on by Coral Springs’ call center, may have helped BSO deputies figure out where the shooting took place.

But her transmission was interrupted.

She did not repeat it.

Repercussions have begun for BSO.

So far, Jan Jordan, the captain who initially took charge of the law enforcement response, has resigned. BSO has also placed Sgt. Brian Miller and Deputy Edward Eason on restricted duty. Both men arrived in time to hear Cruz’s gunshots but did not proceed to the freshman building where students and staff were dying. Another six deputies also heard gunfire but did not go to the building, including school resource officer Scot Peterson, who resigned.

Israel has said he intends to remain sheriff.

“I have done nothing that would warrant my resignation and have absolutely no intentions of resigning,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I am committed to BSO and the safety of Broward County. I will remain sheriff for so long as the voters of Broward County want to have me.”

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel South Florida Sun Sentinel

Ten months have passed since the Parkland shooting. When asked Thursday what policy changes BSO has issued since the shooting, a spokeswoman did not identify any concrete measures but said the agency planned to “take appropriate steps to make any necessary improvements.”

“We look forward to reviewing the commission’s findings,” Keyla Concepcion said in an email. “We will use it as a basis to conduct our own thorough investigation.”

In the FDLE interviews, one BSO sergeant offered his own take on something the department could improve upon: the excruciating, slow process of informing families that their loved ones had died on the day of the tragedy.

Sgt. Richard Rossman said families gathered in a hotel were hearing the news from social media and news outlets before cops could tell them privately.

“The process was horrific,” he told investigators. “You pulled the victim family out and took them over to a break-out room. And then a half-an-hour later, you go back and get another victim. And then you’d hear the screaming. And then you’d go back and get another victim. And then you’d hear the screaming. And sooner or later, as the evening and the morning went on, there’s only one family left. You know what’s coming.”

Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
Support my work with a digital subscription
Caitlin Ostroff is a data reporter for McClatchy’s DC Bureau, based at the Miami Herald. She uses data analysis and coding to present and report information as part of the investigative team.