Report: Training trouble in sheriff's dept. led to higher Parkland death toll

Some deputies couldn’t remember the last time they attended mass-shooter training, while others couldn’t recall what they’d learned when they did attend


By Megan O’Matz, David Fleshler and Tonya Alanez
Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Some Broward sheriff’s deputies couldn’t remember the last time they attended mass-shooter training. Others couldn’t recall what they’d learned when they did attend, investigators reviewing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting found.

A report prepared for a fact-finding commission tasked with uncovering systemic problems in the police response found fault with BSO’s preparedness for the Feb. 14 massacre.

Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. According to testimony, the death toll was higher because a security recommendation was ignored. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)
Students are evacuated by police out of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., after a shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. According to testimony, the death toll was higher because a security recommendation was ignored. (Mike Stocker/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

By comparison, the Coral Springs officers who rushed into the high school consistently praised their training and “had no difficulty in explaining the proper response to an active shooter.”

Training was but one of the issues that compromised the performance of the Broward Sheriff’s Office that day, the report found.

Although the sheriff’s office was the lead agency, Coral Springs officers largely took the initiative, taking classroom keys from the BSO school resource officer who stayed outside.

One Parkland deputy explained that he could not keep up with other officers running to the building “due to being older.” Others took cover behind cars or trees and took vital time to put on bulletproof vests, which many chose not to wear as a matter of routine.

One deputy told other cops: “We all can’t stand behind this tree, we’re gonna get shot.”

Although all BSO deputies had active-shooter training, they couldn’t remember much about it. One deputy claimed to not remember at all, whether it was 10 or even up to 20 years ago, saying “it was a long time ago.” A check of his records found it was only two years ago.

“I was stunned by that,” Commission Chairman Bob Gualtieri, the Pinellas County sheriff, said Wednesday during a meeting of the panel in Sunrise. “Because we know they do training. It was something that perplexed us over the last several weeks. Why he would say it was 10 years ago and why others have trouble recalling it?”

The report states that most BSO deputies interviewed remembered attending training in the past few years. But, “during interviews, it was not uncommon for deputies to have difficulty remembering when their last active-shooter training took place or what type of training they received (lecture, PowerPoints, scenarios, etc…),” the report states.

Veda Coleman-Wright, spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, defended the agency’s training Wednesday, telling The South Florida Sun Sentinel: “BSO’s practices and processes align with national best practices.”

Active-killer training was conducted every three years before the shooting, though smaller agencies were able to offer it more often, she explained in a conversation last week with the newspaper.

The training is not mandated by the Florida Criminal Justice Standards and Training Division, she said. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesman confirmed that it is not required and the frequency is determined by each agency.

In 2015, nearly 600 Broward deputies attended active-killer training and 686 deputies in 2016, Coleman-Wright told the Sun Sentinel.

BSO picked up the pace this year. It will have trained about 1,500 deputies by the end of this month.

She noted that during the school shooting, the responding deputies were taking their cues from the school resource officer on the scene, who was issuing orders to stay away and shut down roads.

Also BSO and Coral Springs were operating on different radio channels. “Those responding deputies didn’t know what Coral Springs knew. Coral Springs had room numbers from victims who called 911. Responding deputies did not,” she said.

That explains why when Coral Springs arrived they saw BSO taking tactical positions, while Coral Springs knew to enter the building.

Ultimately, “You can give a person a significant amount of training and you still can’t predict how they’re going to respond when they’re actually put in a stressful situation.”

One lieutenant told investigators the most recent active-shooter training was focused on the concept of medical rescuers going into “hot” zones in which someone was still firing. He believed that was the first time such training was mandatory and before that active-shooter training was voluntarily and typically was attended by the same deputies.

Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, the resource officer assigned to the school, last attended an active-killer course in April 2016.

On Wednesday afternoon, the commission began reviewing the law enforcement response to the shooting. Much of the discussion centered on the role of Peterson, who retired from the Broward Sheriff’s Office under scorn for failing to rush into the school — and how he influenced other rescuers.

Members of the commission said Peterson simply lied to cover up his failure to protect the lives of students and teachers from shooter Nikolas Cruz.

“Once (Cruz) was in the building … (Peterson) could have prevented him from going up to the second floor or the third floor,” Gualtieri said. “He elected not to do that … He has to be the biggest failure in this, I think, the biggest disappointment.”

Cruz murdered 17 people. Of those, six were on the third floor of the Stoneman Douglas freshman building. There were no victims on the second floor.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Sergeant John Suess presented an animated graphic showing the positioning of various deputies from the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Coral Springs Police Department as the shooting unfolded.

In an interview with a detective and with a national morning news program days later, Peterson said he heard two or three shots, that he thought there might have been a sniper on campus and he didn’t know the location, and that he called in a Code Red over his radio to alert law enforcement and the rest of the school, commissioners were told.

Lies, Gualtieri said.

“He’s not telling the truth,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to figure this out because it’s all a bunch of lies. It’s fictitious.”

For example, Peterson said he ran the entire way to building 12 but based on surveillance video investigators could see he used a golf cart.

Gualtieri said one of the conclusions you could draw is that Peterson “was trying to explain and buy himself time because he didn’t know it was captured on video, he didn’t know he’d be tested, so that when he didn’t act, he’s trying to create more distance and more time and more space for himself, meaning it took longer for him to get to building 12 than it did.”

“That’s a very, very significant inconsistency.”

One of the apparently truthful things Peterson said was that he handed his classroom keys over to Coral Springs officers at the scene who asked for them. They headed into the building, and he didn’t.

The door to the outside was unlocked, but the keys would open the classroom doors inside.

“Did you go into 12 at all?” the detective asked Peterson. “No, because — no,” he answered.

The former sheriff’s deputy — now scorned as a coward for taking cover throughout the Parkland school shooting — is scheduled to testify Thursday before the commission. Gualtieri, the chairman, said he expected Peterson to be there. “The last word we had is that he’s coming. His lawyer said he will be here.”

However, if he shows up, it’s unlikely he will answer questions. In documents recently filed in a Broward Circuit Court civil case, Peterson declined to describe the Feb.14 shooting or the actions he took, citing his Fifth Amendment Constitutional right against self-incrimination.

He said he has reasonable grounds to believe he is facing criminal prosecution, based on public statements Gualtieri made in early September. The sheriff told the media that potential criminal charges against Peterson are “part of what is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.”

In the court filing, Peterson says if he were to answer questions in the civil case, filed by the parents of Meadow Pollack, one of the dead children, or respond to requests for information it”could furnish a link in the chain of evidence subjecting me to criminal prosecution.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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