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Experts explain why SWAT officers were disciplined for responding to Parkland shooting

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Nikolas Cruz, 19, is accused of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (CNN Newsource | WSVN)

When gunfire rang out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month, law enforcement personnel from many nearby communities rushed to the campus to assist Broward County Sheriff’s Office deputies, but two officers who showed up at the scene uninvited are now facing disciplinary action from their own department.

According to the Miramar Police Department, Detectives Jeffrey Gilbert and Carl Schlosser—members of the department’s SWAT team—were not asked to go to school by the sheriff’s office and did not tell their commander they were doing it. Gilbert and Schlosser have been suspended from their SWAT team duties, but they remain on active duty on other assignments.

A memo obtained by the Miami Herald concluded that the officers acted “without the knowledge or authorization from your chain of command,” creating an “officer safety situation due to dispatch not knowing your location or activity.”

The Miramar SWAT team was put on standby status after the shooting in case Broward needed them. They were never requested, but SWAT officers from at least ten other agencies were called in.

The Miramar Police Department issued a statement Thursday responding to what it called "inaccurate information" on social media about the incident.

"Let us be clear, the issue was not that they responded, but that they DID NOT advise. These officers responded to the February 14, 2018 shooting in Parkland, AFTER the shooting was over. They did NOT advise prior to self-dispatching, during the incident, nor immediately following. They did not advise dispatch, their SWAT leaders or even check-in with the Incident Command in Parkland," the statement said.

The statement included a message from Miramar Police Chief Dexter Williams, who explained the officers created an "extreme hazard."

"As the Chief, I am proud that these officers showed the heart, courage, and care to help in any way they could at this event. I expect that level of commitment of all my officers, but they must advise their leaders of their actions," he said.

A union representative has defended the officers for leaping into action.

“While it may have been a violation of policy to not notify their supervisors that they were going there, their intentions were brave and heroic, I think,” Broward County PBA President Jeff Marano told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

A third Miramar SWAT member was suspended over online postings critical of the police response.

Despite their good intentions, policing experts say law enforcement agencies have good reasons for not wanting officers to self-deploy to an active crime scene.

“You ask the average citizen, a police officer hears this call, children are at risk, of course you have to respond,” said Jeff Noble, a police consultant and former deputy chief of police for Irvine, California.

Police departments generally want their officers to run toward danger and officers with SWAT training can be particularly useful in an emergency, he added. but only if the commanding agency has work for them to do.

“There comes a point where you don’t need everybody,” Noble said. “You request what you need.”

According to Thomas Veivia, a former FBI agent who served as a senior SWAT team leader responding to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, it is important that the desire to respond not be discouraged, but an unplanned influx of officers can distract the primary agency on the scene and interfere with the medical response.

“Time is extremely critical,” he said. “However, if people deploy without coordination, then it can create an unnecessary delay in stopping the threat.”

Gilbert and Schlosser were in Coral Springs just south of Parkland for training earlier in the day, and at least one of them was still there when the shooting began. Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, said their decision therefore makes more sense than if they had driven 30 miles up from Miramar after the shooting, but it may still have been ill-advised.

“I get the desire to go and help because that’s what most cops get the job for,” he said.

However, by showing up unrequested several minutes after the incident began, they could have caused more problems than they would be able to solve at that point.

“Oftentimes if you’re not there in the first few minutes, the event is likely to be over and they’re going to want you in a more controlled manner,” Blair said.

According to the memo, neither officer informed their supervisors they were headed to the school. If true, experts say that was a misstep.

As they raced to the scene, Noble said the officers still should have had time to contact their dispatcher and alert their supervisor, assuming they had access to their radios.

“Your first contact should be to your dispatcher,” he said.

There are two reasons for this: you may be needed in your jurisdiction, and your department may already have sent assistance.

“There’s a reason why we assign, particularly in larger cities, officers to certain areas…. You’re supposed to be patrolling your city,” Noble said. “Does your city have enough resources?”

Even without the Miramar SWAT team on the scene, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office response was plagued by confusion and uncertainty. Four armed deputies who initially arrived, including the assigned school resource officer, did not go into the building, and deputies were ordered to form a perimeter while they believed the shooting was still in progress.

Two survivors of the shooting have already announced plans to sue the sheriff’s office or the school resource officer for negligence.

Experts stressed that the impulse Gilbert and Schlosser felt to help is understandable and laudable, but the response from the Miramar Police Department is also understandable if the officers violated standing protocols.

“I believe these officers shouldn’t be criticized,” Veivia said, “but perhaps coached on a better approach.”

Though department policies vary, communication and coordination seem to be the key. Veivia suggested making contact with the department in charge before showing up at the scene.

“I would advise them of the capabilities I possess and what equipment I have available to deploy,” he said. “I would have them direct me to where I am needed and who I need to make contact with upon arrival. It could very well be that I am the 50th caller and I may not be needed.”

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office knows well the consequences of over-convergence of unneeded aid in a crisis.

When a gunman opened fire in the baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January 2017, the call for assistance led to 2,000 local, state, and federal officers descending upon the airport.

Some arriving officers left vehicles in the road, slowing down the official response. Plain-clothes officers brandished firearms or wore ski masks, creating confusion as authorities attempted to determine if there were additional shooters on the loose.

According to an after-action review, the thousands of public safety personnel turning on their radios after the shooting overtaxed the county’s 30-year-old communication system. Officers on the scene from numerous agencies also lacked a unified command structure, leading to an uneven and poorly-coordinated response.

“Having tons of extra cops show up when you don’t need them, it creates confusion,” Noble said.

Similar problems have arisen in the wake of other mass shootings and terrorist attacks.

“In the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, responding officers were dealing with individuals outside the school, to include a non-law enforcement responder,” Veivia said. “This created confusion and delays in dealing with important tasks.”

After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, more than 2,500 state and federal law enforcement personnel swarmed the Watertown, Massachusetts area, including some who did not notify their supervisors. Poor coordination resulted in a transit authority officer struck by friendly fire nearly bleeding to death and officers in an unmarked police vehicle being fired at after it was mistakenly reported stolen.

"It must be part of police training throughout the state that in complex, large incidents or multiple incidents, an officer does not respond unless requested by an official with the authority to make such a request," an after-action report on marathon bombing response recommended.

Those cases underscore what Veivia said is the greatest concern about self-deployment: it can put officers at risk. It is less a matter of jurisdiction than it is one of operational effectiveness and accountability.

“Depending on what transpires, it can create organizational and individual liability problems,” he said. “If something else had gone wrong and someone was injured in the process, who is accountable for that?”

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