Almost two decades ago, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went on a murderous rampage at a Colorado high school, the first officers on the scene did exactly as they were trained: They set up a perimeter to control the situation, while contacting SWAT officers.
Many of the more than three dozen killed and injured that day were struck by bullets and shrapnel long before SWAT arrived.
Columbine changed everything.
Since then, law enforcement officers in proximity of any active shooting scene have been trained to immediately confront and try to eliminate the threat — whether they’re heavily outgunned or not.
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That’s not what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz entered the freshman building and killed 17 students and staffers in a six-minute spree. The only Broward County deputy on the Parkland campus got to the building shortly after the shooting started, took a position outside for four minutes and never went in, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. Cruz dropped his weapon and fled in the crowd of panicked students.
On Thursday, Scot Peterson, 54, who had been the school resource officer since 2010, was suspended, then immediately resigned. Law enforcement leaders across the country, as well as President Donald Trump, have questioned his inaction, saying it was his duty to engage the shooter.
He may not have been the only Broward deputy who didn’t immediately rush into the building, according to a report late Friday by CNN. The network, quoting anonymous sources in Coral Springs, reported that when Coral Springs police officers arrived at the school three other armed county deputies were also outside the building taking cover behind their vehicles. Coral Springs officers, CNN said, joined two newly arriving BSO deputies and a Sunrise officer to enter the school.
Israel told the Miami Herald that Coral Springs Police Chief Tony Pustizzi had relayed the same report to him. He said BSO would look into the overall response — but he stressed that the shooting was already over.
“We know it was approximately four minutes after the shooter departed the school when the first Coral Springs police officers arrived,’’ he said. “We’re investigating every aspect of this.”
For law enforcement, the rules of engagement with an active shooter clearly put an officer’s life at risk. But eliminating the threat dramatically reduces the carnage and loss of life.
“That’s what didn’t happen in Columbine,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which helps set policy for police departments around the country. “After that, the thinking in policing dramatically changed. If you hear gunfire, you are trained to take action. If he knew what was going on in there and he chose not to go in, that is contrary to the policy of every major police department that I know of.”
Israel said Peterson was seen on video standing outside Building 12 for four minutes while Cruz continued to mow down students and faculty inside with an AR-15 assault rifle. Several victims were credited with losing their lives while trying to protect others.
It remained unclear if Peterson — described by staff and students as a well-liked, no-nonsense guy — simply froze, or stayed outside because he believed his firearm was no match for the shooter’s high-powered rifle. Peterson didn’t belong to the police union and hasn’t spoken publicly since his resignation. Israel, at a brief press conference Thursday night, said the scene was captured on video but he vowed never to release it.
The department’s policy on officers engaging active shooters says “if real time intelligence exists the sole deputy or team of deputies may enter the area and/or structure to preserve life.”
Israel, in an interview Friday with the Miami Herald, said all Broward deputies undergo training and are instructed to aggressively try to confront a live shooter. He said Peterson’s inaction made him “sick to his stomach” and that the only situation in which an officer would be justified in not advancing toward a dangerous situation is if it were an “absolute suicide,” or if a place was known to be booby-trapped.
Jeff Bell, the head of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, echoed Israel, saying, “Every second we wait to go inside, there are going to be more lives lost.”
A police officer immediately confronted and got into a firefight with Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen near the Pluse nightclub’s entrance in June 2016, but backed off after he realized he was outgunned and radioed for help. Officers were inside the Pulse nightclub within three minutes removing bodies, according to a timeline created by the Orlando Sentinel. Six minutes in, officers broke through a window to gain entry in another part of the club.
Mateen then barricaded himself, and the standoff lasted more than three hours before he was killed by an Orlando police officer. In that span, Mateen killed 49 people and injured 58 others. His choice of weapon: a Sig Sauer MCX rifle, similar to the AR-15 used by Cruz at the high school.
Orlando police were not criticized for their initial response, but took some heat for the three hours it took to get to Mateen, whom they were in contact with over a cellphone while he was barricaded in a bathroom.
Since Peterson was suspended and stepped down he’s been an object of scorn and ridicule across the country. On Friday, while speaking to a conservative group in Maryland, President Trump weighed in.
“That’s a case where somebody was outside, they’re trained, they didn’t act properly or under pressure or they were a coward,” said the president.
Also Friday, standing outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where his teachers had just returned for the first time since the Feb. 14 shooting, Broward County School’s Superintendent Robert Runcie expressed outrage over Peterson’s alleged inaction.
“It's inexcusable. There’s no other word to describe what we heard yesterday,” the superintendent said. “I wish he [Peterson] had the same kind of courage that our teachers who showed up here today had.”
Not everyone, though, was willing to lay the blame directly on Peterson, a decorated school resource officer with a no-nonsense approach who most students say often greeted them warmly.
Emma González, an 18-year-old senior at the high school who has become a leading student voice, said it was the former student and his use of a high-powered weapon that killed her fellow students — not officer Peterson.
“Maybe he could have done something to help. Of course he was scared. Nobody should have to deal with that, especially at a school,” she said. “There are a lot of things that need to be discussed here, but the main thing is the weapon itself caused an incredible amount of damage and it prevented the good guy from getting to him and preventing the damage from getting worse.”