Broward County

Ten months after Parkland, Broward Sheriff’s Office plans to change active shooter policy

Ten months after the Parkland school shooting — and dogged by criticism of deputies who failed to immediately enter the building where a gunman killed 17 people — the Broward Sheriff’s Office plans to change the instructions it gives to deputies responding to an active shooting, according to an internal memo obtained by the Miami Herald.

The biggest change under the new policy: Deputies are now told they “shall” — rather than “may” — attempt to enter the scene of the shooting in order to stop the killer and save lives. The language of the previous policy was criticized by a state public safety commission, which included parents of students slain in Florida’s worst school shooting.

In a draft report of its conclusions released earlier this month, the commission wrote: “The use of the word ‘may’ in the BSO policy is ambiguous and does not unequivocally convey the expectation that deputies are expected to immediately enter an active assailant scene where gunfire is active and neutralize the threat.”

BSO’s public information office did not immediately respond to a message Sunday. Neither did Broward Sheriff Scott Israel.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel South Florida Sun Sentinel

In November, Israel told the commission he personally inserted the word “may” into the old policy to prevent deputies from entering situations that would result in their certain death.

On Feb. 14, Nikolas Cruz strode into the freshman building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and opened fire for roughly six minutes. Eight BSO deputies were on the school’s sizable campus in time to hear his gunshots. But they did not immediately enter the building, and several were seen taking cover. The deputies said they could not identify where the shooting was taking place, although sworn statements by other police officers who responded cast doubt on some of their accounts. Cruz had fled by the time law enforcement entered the building 11 minutes after he started shooting.

Police are generally trained to immediately locate and confront active shooters.

Under the new BSO policy, deputies responding to an active shooting “shall attempt to protect the life of innocent persons through immediate tactical intervention to eliminate the threat,” according to a Dec. 21 memo from BSO Col. James Polan.

They are then given a set of priorities ranked in order of importance: “Stop the assailant(s). Rescue the victims. Provide medical assistance. Arrest suspects and preserve the crime scene.”

The old policy stated that “if real time intelligence exists the sole deputy or a team of deputies may enter the area and/or structure to preserve life. A supervisor’s approval or on-site observation is not required for this decision.”

Ryan Petty, a member of the state’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission whose daughter, 14-year-old Alaina, was killed at Parkland, said Sunday that at first glance the new policy appeared “significantly improved.”

Alaina Petty
Alaina Petty

“Make no mistake, this is a 180 degree change in policy for BSO,” he said. “It is clear and concise with few exceptions, so effective training can be developed to address future active assailants. This is the policy that should have been in place long before Feb. 14, 2018.”

The new policy goes into effect Jan. 4, according to the memo.

While its instructions that deputies should immediately confront an active shooter are clearer, the new policy acknowledges that rapid engagement may not always be the wisest course.

States the policy: “While deputies are expected to tactically intervene, there may be very limited extenuating circumstances when entry by a solo deputy must be delayed until the situation changes, or additional deputies or resources are present.”

Israel has said that the use of the word ‘may’ in the old policy allowed deputies “to think on their feet.”

“I want an effective tactical response, not a suicide response,” the sheriff told the Stoneman Douglas commission at a November meeting. “The goal of any agency’s response is to save lives. ‘May’ allows a deputy discretion.”

Still, Israel has harshly criticized Scot Peterson, the armed deputy and school resource officer who was on campus when the shooting began but failed to enter the freshman building. Peterson, who later resigned, told other deputies over BSO’s radio to “stay away” from the area.

Asked at a February new conference what Peterson should have done, Israel said: “Went in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer.”

This Feb. 14, 2018 frame from security video provided by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office shows deputy Scot Peterson, right, outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The video released Thursday, March 15, shows Peterson going toward the high school building while a gunman massacred 17 students and staff members, but stayed outside with his handgun drawn. Broward County Sheriff’s Office via AP

But members of the commission said the word ‘may’ allowed deputies to choose not to immediately intervene in an active shooting.

“I’ve been involved in writing policy probably 35 years, and we agree that Scot Peterson’s response was egregious, outrageous, unacceptable,” said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who sits on the commission. “But words matter, and according to your policy, he didn’t have to go in.”

In interviews with commission investigators, several BSO deputies referenced their policy as stating they “ ‘may’ go toward the shooter,” according to the draft of the commission’s findings.

The commission was established to investigate the Parkland shooting and make recommendations to Florida’s governor and legislative leaders. While the commission investigated, BSO suspended its own internal review of how it handled the shooting. After the commission began publicly presenting its findings, BSO placed two deputies on restricted duty. In addition, the captain who first took charge of the scene resigned. The active shooter policy is the latest change.

The commission’s final report could have consequences for Israel, depending on how it is interpreted by elected officials.

Florida Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis called for Israel’s removal on the campaign trail. The governor has the power to suspend officials in the state. They can be removed or reinstated after a trial in the Florida Senate.

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.
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