How Authorities Failed To Stop School Shooter Nikolas Cruz
After missing warning signs, law enforcement and others are now quick to say they need more power to stop the next tragedy.
How can the senseless killing of 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, be made even more tragic and disturbing? By realizing that it could have and should have been prevented by existing authorities using current laws and policies.
The discourse in the wake of the shooting has mostly been about all the new laws we need to prevent such horrors from happening again—increased ages for rifle purchases, a ban on bump stocks, prohibition of "assault weapons" and semi-automatics, easier ways to commit mentally ill people, and more. But the plain, awful truth is that law enforcement and other agencies had all the information and power they needed. Yet the authorities failed to act both during the shooting itself and in the months and years leading up to it. Creating new programs and laws, many of which have little if no relevance to mass shootings or crime in general, will do absolutely nothing to cure official incompetence and indifference.
Here's a partial list of failures that will only grow longer as more information about Nikolas Cruz, who has admitted to the shooting, comes out.
- Broward Country Sheriff Scot Peterson was the school's armed "resource officer" whose entire job it was to protect students from just such situations. He failed to engage the shooter during a six-minute rampage and resigned after being suspended*. Three other members of the sheriff's office were also present during all or part of the shooting and failed to confront the shooter, a lack of action that "stunned and upset" police from nearby Coral Springs* when they arrived on the scene. The response of the head of the department, Sheriff Scott Israel? Referring to Peterson's failure, he told a local reporter, "I gave him a gun. I gave him a badge. I gave him the training. If he didn't have the heart to go in, that's not my responsibility." If Israel, who has called for greater gun control and the ability to remand suspects to mental institutions involuntarily, is not responsible for the failure of his own men to execute their duties, then who is?
- The FBI received at least two tips about Nikolas Cruz but failed to follow up each time. On January 5, a woman called the FBI and had a 13-minute conversation with an agent about Cruz, whom she said had "deteriorated" mentally after his mother died in late 2017. The caller said, "He's thrown out of all these schools because he would pick up a chair and just throw it at somebody, a teacher or a student, because he didn't like the way they were talking to him." She gave information about Cruz's social media accounts, where he posted pictures of tortured and dead animals and promised violence against himself and others. In congressional testimony, the FBI's deputy director said he didn't know why the tip, which led to a counterterrorism file being opened, was not followed up. Last September, a bail bondsman in Mississippi contacted the FBI after seeing a YouTube comment that read, "Im [sic] going to be a professional school shooter" and attributed to a "nikolas cruz." According to a spokesman, after receiving the tip, the "FBI conducted database reviews, checks, but was unable to further identify the person who actually made the comment." Elsewhere, Cruz posted statements such as "I whana [sic] shoot people with my AR-15," "I wanna die Fighting killing shit ton of people," and "I am going to kill law enforcement one day they go after the good people."
- CNN says that various sorts of violent behavior, such as hitting and threatening his mother, resulted in local police generating at least "30 reports going back as far as 2011 [but that] the vast majority of the police calls resulted in 'no paperwork filed.'" In fall 2016, Cruz was investigated by Florida's Department of Children & Families (DCF) after someone called a hotline to report Snapchat images of Cruz's bloody arms (he had apparently cut himself after breaking up with a girlfriend). "The investigation appears to have lacked rigor," reports The Miami Herald, which acquired copies of the report. "An exceptional student education specialist who worked with Cruz repeatedly declined to return phone calls from DCF's adult protective services investigator. [Stoneman Douglas's] resource officer, a deputy, 'refused to share any information' at all, except to confirm that a mobile crisis unit had been out to the school to assess Cruz. Cruz himself also wouldn't cooperate, saying that 'he talked about the situation enough. If Cruz had, in fact, been cutting himself that day, the investigator appears to have made little effort to confirm the allegation: The investigator, the report said, 'was not able to see any scars or cuts on the [victim's] arms because he was wearing long sleeves.'"
- Cruz, 19, was enrolled in a public school in Broward County but had been expelled last year from Stoneman Douglas for "bringing knives on campus," according to a source in The New York Times. The day after the shooting, the mayor of Broward County, Beam Furr, said "[Cruz] had been undergoing some treatment. We can't go into detail on that…I don't know if he was exactly on law enforcement's radar, but it wasn't like there wasn't concern for him. He had not been back to the clinic for over a year, so there's been a time where he was receiving treatment and then stopped."
It's understandable why survivors and observers of the carnage in Florida are looking for ways to prevent that sort of attack from happening again. For authorities in power, though, such an impulse has got to take a back seat to an honest evaluation of their own failures. When Sheriff Israel, for instance, brushes off any responsibility for the the failure of his department to prevent or minimize violence, the only proper reaction is outrage. The FBI has the manpower and the willpower to immediately confront stock short-sellers and surveil just about anybody it wants to, but it can't explain why it didn't follow up on Nikolas Cruz? Florida's Department of Children & Families is notoriously incompetent, which doesn't excuse its workers—or the legislators who ultimately oversee it—from accepting a terrible status quo.
There are legitimate concerns about government actors who aggressively follow up on every random tip and stray hunch to bust into people's lives. All too often, we find that people in positions of power routinely abuse their authority. And yet there are no excuses for the ways in which Nikolas Cruz slipped through the cracks of the agencies that are supposed to protect both him and us from, well, people like him. Giving these same agencies even more power is no way to pay our respects to the dead of Stoneman Douglas High.
*CORRECTION: This story originally said that Peterson was fired. He resigned after being suspended. This story also originally referred to Coral Springs as Coral Gables.
Related: "The Parkland Shooting Screw-Ups Go All the Way To the Top," a Reason Podcast featuring Katherine Mangu-Ward, Robby Soave, Eric Boehm, and me. Listen below or subscribe at iTunes.