By Jeffrey James Higgins
Published on February 27, 2018
During the recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, four Broward County sheriff’s deputies, including a school resource officer, allegedly waited to enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School while children were being murdered inside. If Sheriff Scott Israel’s investigation confirms that those officers failed to take action, they should be fired for abrogating their most sacred duty.
Police officers need to confront suspects immediately during an active shooter situation in a school or other public place. Ideally, there should be at least two officers present to clear even a single room. The search of a school is best done by a tactical team, but an active shooter is an exception to the rule. In exigent circumstances, when there is a serious risk of death or bodily injury to others, police need to respond immediately, even if that means searching with a less than optimal number of officers.
The FBI has developed protocols for how law enforcement should respond to active shooters, and over 114,000 officers have already received Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training. This training is designed to give officers the basic tactical formations and other techniques needed to clear a school with a limited number of officers. When a mass shooting occurs, it is likely that the officers who respond will come from different departments and will have different levels of training, as was the case in Parkland. The training is designed to allow officers who never worked together to enter schools, locate the shooter, and eliminate the threat.
All active shooter incidents are exigencies, where even a lone officer needs to take action. When the attack is in a school, as in Parkland, the need for swift action is even greater. Children are among the most defenseless and vulnerable people in our society, and the main role of government is to stop citizens from using force against each other. It may seem harsh to criticize those four officers for not risking their lives and entering the school, but it appears they failed to fulfill a duty on which the public depends.
As a deputy sheriff with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, I once received a domestic disturbance call just as our patrol zones shifted to the east, so I responded knowing that my backup would probably be several minutes away. As I approached the parking lot to the complainant’s community, the dispatcher updated the call to say she heard shots being fired. I requested my backup to expedite and jogged to the townhouse.
As I walked up to the front of the building, a terrified woman burst through the front door toward me. “He has a gun, and he’s going to shoot my kids. Please, don’t let him kill my kids,” she pleaded. I radioed dispatch that an armed man was threatening to murder children, then I drew my gun and shouldered my way through the front door.
I quickly cleared the bottom floor, then slowly ascended the stairs to the second floor. The house was completely dark, and I held my flashlight in one hand and a .45 semi-automatic handgun in the other. There was an open bedroom door at the end of the hall, so I moved toward it because it was the most immediate danger. My pulse accelerated as I approached the door, not knowing where the suspect was or if the children were still alive.
I reached the room and saw a man lying flat on his back, blood pumping out of his chest, and a semiautomatic handgun on the floor near his right hand. I could smell the gunpowder in the room, and the man looked dead. I glanced around, but there was no sign of the children. “Sheriff’s Office. Kids, are you here?” I shouted. A young boy, probably only five years old, popped up behind the bed, his eyes wide with fear. A moment later, a second child peeked over the bed at me. “Come to me,” I said and stepped into the room positioning myself between the man and the children as they moved around the bed. “Run outside and find your mother,” I said, and they fled the room in their pajamas.
This was a crime scene, and I didn’t want to disturb the evidence, but I had to secure both the handgun and the man and then finish searching the house. I bent down cautiously and grabbed the handgun. As soon as I stood up, the man who I thought was dead bolted upright and screamed. My knees felt weak from the surprise, and I took a step back, covering him with my gun.
The man jumped up and ran from the room, blood spurting everywhere. I chased him down the hallway and radioed that the suspect was fleeing. I followed him down the stairs and out the front door, where the man stopped and confronted me. I stuffed his gun in my waistband, covering him with my own, and ordered him to “get on the ground,” but he just babbled incoherently. A second deputy arrived and tackled him, and we quickly subdued and handcuffed him. I later learned that the gunshot was self-inflicted and that the man had had survived.
This incident illustrates the need to act from a disadvantaged tactical position when children are at risk. I didn’t wait for my backup or take cover behind a car. I knew that searching a dark two-story townhouse alone was dangerous, but the circumstances made this an exception, so I confronted the suspect alone. If I didn’t, those children could have died.
In Parkland, it is unclear how many children those four deputies could have saved if they entered the school immediately, but they may have been able to stop the attack much sooner. Even if the deputies who stayed outside the school while children died had poor training or little experience in lethal situations, they still failed to protect the lives of the innocent. Sheriff Israel needs to conduct a transparent investigation and quickly fire any officers who failed to respond properly. Not to harshly punish those officers for dereliction of duty is to undermine citizens’ trust in the police.
Jeffrey James Higgins is a retired DEA supervisory special agent and a former Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy, with over 25 years of total law enforcement experience. His recent writing and media appearances can be found at JeffreyJamesHiggins.com.