The tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida got a little bit worse yesterday as news emerged that the armed school resource officer on duty, Scot Peterson, failed to even enter the building as the shooting was taking place. Faced with a potential suspension over his lack of action, Peterson resigned his post this week. At a press conference at which Sheriff Scott Israel disclosed the armed guard’s failure, he said that Peterson should have, “Gone in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.”
Social media erupted on Thursday night with condemnation of Peterson’s cowardice. Although he may have been under no legal obligation to put his life at risk to stop the shooting, given the heroism of students and teachers who died protecting others, his failure didn’t look very good. There is no doubt that Peterson will suffer from demons of that day with or without external criticism. He has his own cross to bear now. But the more important question is how his failure fits into a broader picture of incompetence before and during the mass killing.
Serious questions arise about how fit Peterson was for his job, and whether anybody bothered to find out. Had Peterson received sufficient training to know how to respond to this kind of incident? Were specific protocols in place that he was to follow? An internal investigation is now being launched to hopefully answer these questions.
The Tale Of the Tape
In addition to the news about Peterson, on Thursday we learned that police, upon arriving on the scene, went to view security cameras and believed for some time that they were watching a live feed, when in fact it had been rewound by 20 minutes. Confused police thought the gunman was still on the second floor of the school, when in fact he was on his way to Wal-Mart to buy a soda.
According to the Sun Sentinel, at 2:54 pm police watched tape of the suspect, believing it was live, even though the perpetrator had left the building long before. The sheriff’s office described this as a communications failure. The same security camera system eventually identified the inaction of officer Peterson. The more we learn about the local police preparation and response to the shooting, the more it seems like a shambolic effort, rife with mistakes and carelessness.
What Could Have Been Done
The natural question that arises is whether anything could have been done to increase the competence and preparedness of the Broward County police force before this kind of school shooting. At a CNN town hall Wednesday night, Israel all but berated National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch for daring to suggest that law enforcement dropped the ball. Rather than taking some blame and talking about how to do better, he claimed innocence, even though he likely knew of Peterson’s actions, or lack thereof and the mistake with the cameras. How long he should stay in his job is a valid question.
But is there anything we can do? Yesterday, speaking at CPAC, Sen. Ted Cruz said not only is there something Congress can do, but that he tried to do it after the killings at Sandy Hook elementary school. In 2013, as a freshman senator he co sponsored the Grassley-Cruz bill that would have, among other things, added $300 million to the federal budget for school safety. Although the bill had bipartisan support, it eventually failed.
Cruz suggested that had the bill passed it might have changed the outcome in Parkland. This is impossible to know for sure, but $300 million goes a long way towards training armed guards at schools and teaching cops how to properly view school surveillance video. Instead, school safety efforts look like second-tier concerns patrolled by less than competent rent-a-cops.
In the hours and days after the Parkland shooting, the story that emerged from much of the media was that of a ragtag bunch of teenage survivors who were going to change the conversation about guns in America. That may or may not happen. But as days pass and better information comes to light, this looks a lot less like a gun problem and a lot more like a law enforcement problem.
This was a shooter who had more red flags than a May Day parade. Israel says his agency had 23 calls involving the shooter or his brother since 2008. In 2016 a tip to the office suggested the shooter had made claims about wanting to shoot up a school, a tip that was apparently relayed to Peterson.
Wherever one stands on the gun issue and whatever role our gun laws played in this tragedy, the abject failure of law enforcement in this situation needs to be addressed. Its time to revisit proposals like Grassley-Cruz that put a laser focus on the need for better security in schools. We can’t afford to have our kids protected by the Keystone cops. We need to take campus security as seriously as we do our public housing and transit systems.
Officer Peterson has resigned. Perhaps others should, too. But that isn’t the answer. The answer, at least a big part of it, is to train and equip law enforcement to deal with threats like we saw in Parkland. It’s a simple, straightforward, and non-controversial effort that we need to start undertaking now.