March 8, 2018 at 6:14 PM
More than three weeks after the shooting rampage at a South Florida high school, there are many unanswered questions about how law enforcement officials handled warnings about the suspected attacker and the way they responded to the Feb. 14 massacre.
Along with lingering mysteries regarding the shooting itself, the missing pieces are the focus of numerous ongoing inquiries from local, state and federal officials in the wake of one of the country’s deadliest school shootings, which claimed 17 lives. A central issue for many of the probes is what law enforcement officials did — and what authorities more broadly could or should have done — before, during and after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Authorities have acknowledged receiving multiple warnings about Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old shooting suspect, who was indicted Wednesday on 34 counts of premeditated murder and attempted murder. Those revelations have prompted intense scrutiny of how law enforcement officials handled the red flags.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the rampage, has declined to say whether it had identified a possible motive for the shooting nor has it said if there are any leading theories, citing the “active and ongoing investigation.” On Thursday afternoon, the sheriff’s office released a timeline detailing the massacre, expanding on the information police had made public in the shooting’s aftermath.
The sheriff’s office has borne much of the public criticism in the wake of the shooting, with embattled Sheriff Scott Israel becoming a lightning rod and facing calls for his suspension; Gov. Rick Scott (R) directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the police response to the shooting.
Israel has defended his leadership, while his office has launched several internal probes since the shooting. He and his office have defended how they treated most of the calls regarding the suspect over the years, with a spokeswoman this week again emphasizing that despite repeated calls about Cruz and his family, officials found “no arrestable offenses, nor was there evidence to prompt an involuntary mental health assessment.”
Israel has acknowledged issues with two of the warning calls, saying “we’re not sure if deputies did everything they could have or should have.” Both of those calls — one in February 2016, the other in November 2017 — mentioned Cruz’s potential for attacking a school, and the sheriff’s office has announced internal investigations into each.
The sheriff’s office also is investigating the actions of multiple deputies who responded to the shooting on Valentine’s Day. Israel publicly criticized Scot Peterson, the former Broward sheriff’s deputy assigned as the armed school resource officer at the high school, saying he waited outside during the massacre instead of rushing in to confront the shooter.
Peterson has disputed Israel’s comments, arguing in a statement issued through his lawyer that he heard gunfire but believed it was coming from somewhere outside, which is why he sought shelter to assess the situation. The sheriff’s office declined to comment on Peterson’s account, saying the situation remains the subject of an internal investigation.
Another inquiry focuses on claims from officers in neighboring Coral Springs, Fla. — a city where many Stoneman Douglas students and teachers live — who said they found Broward sheriff’s deputies waiting outside the school on Feb. 14. The sheriff’s office has said it is investigating those allegations, while Israel said during a CNN interview last week that Peterson was the only law enforcement official there as the shooting took place.
The sheriff’s office on Thursday released records relating to the shooting, including panicked 911 calls made the day of the attack and numerous reports showing that police contacts with Cruz’s family were frequently for minor domestic disturbances.
The timeline released by the sheriff’s office Thursday documented the shooter’s movements and police dispatch comments, though it noted that some communications — particularly those involving Peterson, the school resource officer, and school security personnel — were over a school radio system and were not recorded. The timeline described officers responding to a frantic, confusing scene, and it noted that officers first entered the building five minutes after the massacre had ended.
The sheriff’s office acknowledged that some radio communications possibly failed during the shooting response. The aging system the county uses — and plans to replace — might have caused some people to be unable to send or receive radio messages, the office said.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said its probe, launched at Scott’s request, will focus on how local police officials responded to the shooting itself, rather than looking at any of the warnings beforehand.
Another, more wide-ranging review that could soon get underway would examine both the shooting and what preceded it. Legislation that Florida lawmakers approved Wednesday — setting up new firearms regulations — also established a public safety commission to “investigate system failures in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting” and other cases of mass violence in the state.
According to the legislation, in addition to examining how officials responded to the massacre, the panel would be asked to explore any law enforcement failures in responding to the suspect before the shooting and to develop a timeline of contacts between the attacker and local, state and national agencies.
Related: [The lives lost in Parkland]
The commission would be able to subpoena witnesses and documents as part of its work, with a first report expected by Jan. 1. The legislation was sent to Scott, who is reviewing it and plans to meet with victims’ relatives Friday before announcing what he will do with the bill, according to his office.
While that legislation moved forward in Florida’s capital this week, a senior FBI official headed to Capitol Hill to again acknowledge that the bureau made a mistake by not investigating a January warning that Cruz could “get into a school and just shoot the place up.”
David Bowdich, the bureau’s acting deputy director, made that point at a news conference last month and then reiterated it during a pair of Capitol Hill visits to brief members of Congress. In his most recent appearance, Bowdich spoke this week to members of the House’s Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, where he acknowledged that the January tip had included enough information for the FBI to begin a probe, according to the chairmen of those committees.
Bowdich said the call taker who received the tip connected it to a warning the bureau had received in September 2017 about a YouTube comment mentioning a school shooting posted by someone with the username “nikolas cruz,” the committee chairs said.
Despite this, the call taker and a supervisor never referred it to field agents for further investigation, which the FBI said violated its protocols. The FBI is still reviewing its handling of the two tips relating to Cruz. According to the House committees, Bowdich said a preliminary report calls for more oversight of the tip line and better training.
The school system also has pledged to look at its numerous interactions with Cruz, including many disciplinary warnings and repeated referrals for counseling, his records show. Robert W. Runcie, the Broward County Public Schools superintendent, called for an outside consulting group to conduct an independent review of Cruz’s records as well as the academic, social and emotional services he received.
“The ability to move forward in the aftermath of a horrific attack on our school community depends on the steps we take now to understand the conditions that may have led to this tragedy,” Runcie said in a statement. “A quest for such understanding must be done with both transparency and a sense of urgency.”
He said the review would begin this week and end in June with the release of a report detailing findings and any recommendations.
Cruz’s attorneys have acknowledged his guilt and said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. On Thursday, they filed court documents withdrawing a not guilty plea previously filed on his behalf, saying that he instead opts to stand mute in response to the indictment handed down a day earlier.
Howard Finkelstein, the Broward County public defender, told The Washington Post that this is a way to avoid pleading in any way while prosecutors weigh whether to seek a death sentence.
“Pleading not guilty … just seemed wrong in this case,” Finkelstein wrote in an email. “A legal fiction that could bring unnecessary pain to the victims’ families.”
Moriah Balingit and Wesley Lowery contributed to this report.