Could Police Have Stopped Florida School Shooter Leading Up to Attack? Probably Not, Say Experts
Policing and legal scholars say criticism of law enforcement following the Feb. 14 mass shooting is premature
Following the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel and his office has come under heavy scrutiny for how it handled numerous troubling tips about 19-year-old suspect Nikolas Cruz.
In addition to the tips from concerned friends and neighbors, investigators — with both the sheriff’s office and the FBI — were allegedly aware of several online posts the teen made about guns, knives, and his violent aspirations.
There have been calls for Israel to resign, but experts on policing and law say the opprobrium is premature because police are often legally restricted from proactively addressing dangerously unstable people before they perpetrate violence.
“Cruz is the most red-flagged person to have ever done this. The flags are much redder in retrospect,” Dr. Harold Pollack, a University of Chicago professor who co-directs the school’s crime lab, tells PEOPLE.
While Pollack concedes “it’s possible that the police might have responded more aggressively,” he says “we have to learn a little more. This case exemplifies the importance of tightening up the laws to give police the unambiguous ability to act in cases like this.”
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Pollack tells PEOPLE “the relatively unregulated proliferation of assault weapons requires every police department, every hospital, and every school to respond in a highly vigilant way to ambiguous signals.”
He says, “We are relying on imperfect systems to deal with these rare but salient events, which is not a smart national strategy to prevent these kinds of rampage killings.”
During an event last week hosted by CNN, Israel defended his department and its handling of Cruz; his office maintains there were only 23 incidents “where previous contact was made with the killer or his family,” but CNN uncovered records that seem to indicate 39 calls for service were documented.
“We need to be empowering police officers and deputy sheriffs throughout the nation, to be able to take people who are an immediate threat to themselves or an immediate threat to someone else, to be examined and we need to take guns way from them forever,” Israel said at CNN’s Town Hall. “They should never get them back.”
A spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association countered by claiming Israel’s officers could have invoked the Baker Act, a Florida law that allows for involuntary psychiatric examinations of people who may have mental illness.
Israel did not respond to PEOPLE’s requests for an interview, but told WPLG he rejects the narrative “that the signs were missed,” noting, “We’re not allowed to arrest on what a person thinks about on pre-crimes. We’re not allowed to Baker Act unless the person is an immediate threat to himself or someone else.”
Criminology Prof. Warns Against ‘Quick Rush to Judgement’
William Terrill, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, tells PEOPLE he agrees that “it seems there’s been a pretty quick rush to judgment without a lot of critical evidence” following the Parkland shooting.
“The aspect of policing in which officers repeatedly go to the same addresses and deal with the same people is pretty common,” Terrill says. “What was occurring in this situation is common. The question becomes what the calls for service were regarding and what were the options for police officers.”
In most situations, police respond to calls, and “there’s a lot of gray area … officers apply their own discretion but also need evidence to make an arrest. They can’t go by their gut, they have to piece together enough evidence to get probable cause. Unless someone says this person, who has a gun that is legal, he has threatened me, police need definitive evidence to support the allegations.”
The debate will no doubt endure for months if not years, but Pollack tells PEOPLE law enforcement is limited in what it can do when concerns are raised about an individual. The fact that government funding for policing continues to decline also isn’t helping, he says.
“A gun violence restraining order seems to be drawing bi-partisan support, and I think that’s valuable,” Pollack explains. “There are a few reasons to raise the age limit to buy a gun. When you are 18 or 19, you are going through a lot, the turbulence of young adulthood can lead people to become violent.
“If we raised the age to 21,” he says, “there’s more years there to accumulate a paper trail — there’s more time to see what this person’s life is like: Are they committing crimes, are they experiencing severe mental illness?”
Pollack notes the full onset of most mental illnesses in people doesn’t occur until their late teens and early 20s. Also, a person’s past isn’t always an indicator of their potential for mass violence.
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Adds Pollack, “Before [their violent actions], there are no realistic or legally actionable ways to tell that this person was going to do this,” Pollack says. “Not everyone has been convicted or involuntarily committed, and oftentimes, the first crime these people commit happens with the first shot they fire. We need to stringently regulate some of these rifles, because while they’re rarely used in the majority of the murders in this country, it has an iconic appeal for people who want to commit such an atrocity.”
Law Professor: Criticism of Sheriff ‘Part of an NRA Campaign’
Stanford Law Professor John Donohue says he’s been “unhappy” with the criticism of Israel’s department and the FBI, and tells PEOPLE the backlash is “part of an NRA campaign to say police all screwed up, therefore you need your guns because you can’t count on the police for anything.”
Every complaint against law enforcement in the wake of the school slayings, according to Donohue, stems from actions he says were taken by the NRA.
“[The suspect] represented what the NRA has always said is the law-abiding citizen: He’d never committed a felony and was never institutionalized,” Donohue says. “It seems the NRA has created this situation that makes it incredibly difficult to get someone on the prohibited purchase list and prevents deeper background checks. In any other industrialized nation, had that guy gone in with that background to buy a gun, he would never have been able to buy a gun, let alone an assault rifle.”