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What police missed before the Florida shooting

Police missed a lot of red flags. But it remains unclear if they could have done much with the hints they had.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before the start of Wednesday’s CNN town hall on guns.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before the start of Wednesday’s CNN town hall on guns.
Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The day after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, President Donald Trump tweeted that people “[m]ust always report” signs that may suggest a person is planning a mass killing. But more than a week later, it’s become clear that many people did report such signs about the shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, to police — and law enforcement simply didn’t act.

In fact, law enforcement didn’t act at several points:

  1. The FBI received a tip in January from a person close to Cruz that the 19-year-old owned guns and could be a future school shooter. According to the FBI statement, the tipster described Cruz’s “desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting.” But then, “Protocols were not followed.” The Miami field office never got the tip, and “no further investigation was conducted at this time.”
  2. Before the FBI, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Florida received a tip in November that, according to the Miami Herald, Cruz “could be a school shooter in the making,” but the warning was never written up.
  3. The Herald went on: The November tip “came just weeks after a relative called urging [the sheriff’s office] to seize his weapons. Two years ago, according to a newly released timeline of interactions with Cruz’s family, a deputy investigated a report that Cruz ‘planned to shoot up the school’ — intelligence that was forwarded to the school’s resource officer, with no apparent result.” In total, the sheriff’s office “fielded 23 calls in the past decade related to Cruz or his family.”
  4. Even during the shooting itself, law enforcement was slow to act. According to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, the armed school resource officer at the scene of the shooting “never went in” as he “clearly” heard gunfire for four to six minutes, instead standing outside of the school building — a failure that potentially led to more deaths. The deputy, Scot Peterson, has since quit.
  5. According to CNN and Florida’s Sun Sentinel, other sheriff’s deputies on the scene held back from entering. The sheriff’s office is investigating the claims.

At practically every level, law enforcement seemed to fail — allowing Cruz to carry out a massacre that killed 17 people. The gaps in law enforcement’s response have driven calls for Israel to resign, with a state representative writing to Florida Gov. Rick Scott to ask him to remove Israel from office.

But there are genuine questions about whether the police could have prevented the shooting even if they had taken the prior tips more seriously.

Could police have prevented the shooting?

In hindsight, it’s easy to say that law enforcement missed a lot of clues and should have been able to intervene. But at the time, reality was a bit messier.

First, for the FBI, there are serious questions about jurisdiction. As Dave Gomez, a former FBI agent, pointed out on Twitter, the red flags raised by tips were largely an issue that the local authorities would have been in charge of handling. In this sense, the FBI still likely failed — since it should have sent the tip to the Miami office, which could have then transmitted the information to the local police.

Putting that aside, let’s say the local authorities did get more involved. It’s not clear-cut what would happen then. The police could have surveilled Cruz, although they likely would’ve needed a warrant. But they couldn’t have just arrested Cruz; they would have needed evidence of a crime to do that.

What happens then depends on the circumstances: Would Cruz have made a credible threat? Would he have shown signs that he’s acting on that threat — like buying a gun? Essentially, police would need to look for evidence that a crime was committed or will soon be committed.

“Is that enough to arrest somebody? Saying, ‘I want to kill somebody.’ I buy a gun,” Jeffrey Ringel, a former FBI agent who now works for the Soufan Group, a security firm, told Vox. “That might be enough.”

The tips that police have publicly acknowledged so far may have fallen short of that threshold. But maybe they would have gotten better evidence if they took the tips seriously and thoroughly investigated Cruz.

“The challenge for law enforcement is trying to figure out who to take seriously,” J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism expert, told me. “What we don’t have are statistics on how many people talk about committing mass murder, but then don’t. Anecdotally, a lot of us have probably had the experience of thinking someone might be dangerous based on what they say, but then the person never acts on it. So the challenge is how do we sort out people who are all talk from people with serious intent.”

There are examples of this working: In Southern California, the authorities allegedly overheard a student threatening to open fire on his school, El Camino High School. They discovered “multiple guns and ammunition” when they searched the student’s home with a warrant. The student was arrested for making a criminal threat.

Would this kind of approach have worked in Florida, though? It’s genuinely hard to say.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Williams.