Among the biggest news stories to emerge following the horrific murders of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14 was the failure of the armed deputy assigned to the school to enter the building and engage the shooter. Other news stories report that three other deputies who arrived at the scene didn’t enter the building either, although the sheriff’s department is still investigating those claims.
We’ve also learned that the authorities were warned repeatedly that Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old accused of committing the murders, might be a danger. “The Parkland shooting is quickly moving from a story about the need for more restrictions on weapons and owners to one about how officials failed to execute their duties,” opined Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie. That’s true, yet it would be wrong to view the deputies’ response as unusual.
A look at some of the official responses to other mass shootings highlights a disturbing pattern, such as the 1984 mass shooting in a McDonald’s in the San Diego suburb of San Ysidro that claimed 21 lives. As CNN reported, “Witnesses said the unemployed welder and security guard started shooting immediately, and kept on shooting for 77 minutes until a police sniper on a nearby rooftop ended the siege with a bullet through (James) Huberty’s heart.” That’s a long time for police to stay outside of the restaurant.
Police agencies have argued that they learned from the way that event was handled. They also insist that they changed the way they approach mass shootings after an arguably slow response to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 12 students and a teacher dead. Yet a similar question emerged in June 2016 at the largest mass shooting in U.S. history at the Pulse nightclub. CBS News reported that “three hours passed before one of the nation’s most revered SWAT teams stormed the building and brought the attack in Orlando that left 49 people and the gunman dead to an end.”
Some of the commentary about Parkland centered on the behavior of the officers involved. For instance, President Donald Trump said this was “a case where somebody was outside, they’re trained, they didn’t act properly or under pressure or they were a coward.” The deputy’s attorney released a statement saying that his actions were appropriate. But it’s also worth looking at some possible systemic reasons for such inaction.
One potential issue is unionization, and the role it plays in training police officers. Officers often say that they are heroes because of the risks they routinely face. Slate’s David Feige argues that this narrative of the “hero cop” has led not only to the “increasing militarization of police departments” and broad justification of the use of deadly force – but “the life-and-death nature of the job is used to push for extremely generous medical leave, overtime, and pay packages.” These union priorities consume budgets with high benefit levels, meaning there aren’t always enough funds left over to hire a sufficient number of police to deal with these incidents.
But this idea also has led to the notion that “officer safety” should trump most other concerns in any potentially hostile situation. No one wants officers to take unnecessary risks, of course, but ultimately the purpose of their jobs – and the reason they receive such generous compensation packages – is to take some risk when the public is in danger. They are supposed to protect our safety, not surround the perimeter of an active-shooting situation and wait until the killer runs out of bullets – or, as in Florida, abandons his weapon, mingles with the fleeing crowd, and runs from the building.
Unfortunately, this “hero cop” ethic has led not just to police militarization, but to bureaucratization. I often compare the situation in police departments with those in our nation’s public schools. Everyone appreciates the tough job that police perform, just as we appreciate the importance of teachers. Yet union work rules, restrictions on disciplining and firing bad teachers, and a focus on “entitlements” rather than “public service” has led to many poor-performing public schools. The same union/bureaucratic model has hobbled the effectiveness of police agencies, too.
Slow and bureaucratic police responses aren’t confined to mass shootings, either. On Memorial Day in 2011, a suicidal man waded into the San Francisco Bay and stood there, neck deep in water for an hour, as police and fire officials stood around and watched him drown. Police refused to intervene because they said that they were unsure whether the man was dangerous. Firefighter “first responders” blamed local budget cuts for denying them the money they needed for cold-water safety training and equipment, even though a bystanders went in the water to retrieve the body.
The local fire chief was asked if his team would brave the chilly waters to save a drowning child, and he said: “Well, if I was off duty, I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response, and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures, because that’s what’s required by our department to do.” As I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, this seems to reflect the way police and firefighters “have become infected with the bureaucratic mind-set spread by public-sector union activism.”
In unionized government agencies, including police agencies, the policies are driven more by what’s best for the employee and less by what’s best for the public. That’s ingrained early in the process. “Police training starts in the academy, where the concept of officer safety is so heavily emphasized that it takes on almost religious significance,” wrote University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, in a column in the Atlantic. That mindset becomes even more troubling in a mass-shooting situation, where so many lives are at risk.
There are plenty of lessons from this shooting. Gun owners are right to question those who want to disarm them. And all Americans are right to wonder whether police will take care of their safety when law enforcement and other agencies failed at their jobs in Parkland. But a deeper examination would look at the way public-safety officials currently are trained and would ask whether union demands and bureaucratic policies that promote officer safety have gone so far that they end up imperiling the public’s safety.
Steven Greenhut is contributing editor to the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.