Richard Fairburn
Author: Richard Fairburn

Since I wrote my first article last week about the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, several revelations about the Broward County Sheriff’s Office response to the incident have come to light.

First, I need to correct an error in my first article. I said that if pre-event tips about the killer had been called into a local police agency instead of the FBI, there would not have been a failure to act on that intelligence. Now we know the same tips were called in to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and they also dropped the ball.

Leaders have to be held to a higher standard

We all go through watershed moments that change our outlook on life. Mine was on August 1, 2017, when I took a new job as a public safety director in my hometown in Illinois, after more than 20 years of non-sworn time teaching critical incident response and leadership at an academy. Moving back to a chief’s position, I must now live up to the leadership philosophy I preached.

My first “fear” after being sworn in to lead 20 police officers, 15 firefighters and a 911 staff, was that I might lose one of them to the dangers of their professions. I asked myself:

Would I be the example of strength to support a family and community should one of my first responders fall in the line of duty? Would I make good decisions when my community faces a major critical incident?

Holding myself to a high standard of leadership gives me the right to expect the same from others. The leadership level of police agencies has declined tremendously during my career. I have seen police chiefs and sheriffs become politically correct politicians rather than the “lead from the front” cops they should be.

How failures in leadership trickle down

The failure in top leadership associated with the Parkland shooting was seen at all levels in both the FBI and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office:

1. Failure to act on pre-event tips

In my first article, I said the FBI dropped the ball. Now it seems the Broward County Sheriff’s Office also failed the students and teachers of the high school in Parkland, Florida. Since the Columbine shooting, U.S. law enforcement agencies have prevented hundreds of potential school attacks. A potential attack was probably prevented after the Parkland massacre in the next town north of mine here in Illinois.

There is NO EXCUSE for failing to stop an active shooter event when you receive good pre-event intelligence. Different states have different statues available, but not taking maximum possible action against a threat borders on criminal negligence.

2. Failure of the School Resource Officer to act when shots were being fired

Since the beginning of the school resource officer (SRO) movement, we have seen marginal officers seek out these positions (I am talking about old, lazy and out-of-shape cops who are afraid of the street). We have also seen agencies knowingly dump their duds in SRO positions to get them off the street, often because other officers don’t trust those cops as reliable backup. While most SROs today are capable and competent – serving for all the right reasons – we need warriors, not wimps, guarding our children.

3. Failure of responding patrol officers to make entry when they arrived at the school

The “not going in” phenomenon reported in Parkland by both the SRO and arriving patrol deputies has been seen at other active shooter events. I have always thought rapid deployment training was weak in two essential factors – entry into the kill zone under extreme stress and team leader training.

The most critical of these is entry into the kill zone. How do we get a solo officer to take a deep breath and run into a deadly event in the face of potentially overwhelming firepower? Some officers inherently have the necessary level of courage and self-motivation, others don’t.

I always stressed in training that you should behave as if some bastard was about to kill your own children in their school and you were the only option to save their lives.

We must emphasize self-motivation – get in there – at every opportunity during rapid deployment training and refresher sessions. Whenever we encounter a failure to engage, it must be punished severely.

4. Failure of top leadership to be accountable

When a U.S. Navy vessel at sea suffers a major catastrophe, only one person is held accountable, the Captain. The situation may have been caused by one lowly Seaman, but the Captain is responsible for everything on his ship.

This principle never seems to apply to government officials like police chiefs and sheriffs. While there are many top-notch sheriffs in the country, the need for periodic re-election turns many of them into polished politicians instead of effective police leaders. We have too many police chiefs who either never were street cops or have forgotten how to think like cops.

Weak or misguided leaders eventually infect the whole organization with their incompetence. They surround themselves with ambitious “yes-men” managers and the virus eventually trickles down to every level, including the street cops who should be engaging active killers in schools.

For an example of this, look at the January 2017 active shooter event at the Ft. Lauderdale airport in Broward County, Florida. Many critics of the Ft. Lauderdale Airport response by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office say it was one of the most total Charlie Foxtrot events in recent police history. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack pre-event investigation and post-event response follows the same pattern. The common denominator? Sheriff Scott Israel.

Israel has a long track record as an experienced second generation cop, but his tenure as a sheriff includes allegations of “pay to play” rewards to political supporters … and two critical incident disasters. He made some good decisions related to the SRO’s failure to engage, then jumped into the political fray by trying to divert the blame onto guns – playing up to the media to divert attention from his own failures and those of his agency.

Deputy Sheriff Scot Peterson – the SRO who stayed outside for almost four minutes of slaughter at his school – did the right thing when he resigned. Israel should follow that lead.

5 action items for every police leader

Here are five steps you can take to better prepare for an attacker like the killer in Parkland, Florida:

1. Active shooter response policy updates

Update your active shooter response policy to ensure it requires an immediate response by the first-arriving officer. We can no longer use a policy requiring the formation of a four-officer team prior to entry.

2. Adapt to on-scene conditions

Include a “commander’s intent” statement that provides an overarching framework of your expectations for active shooter response. These events are so variable and complex that on-scene officers must have the flexibility to adapt pre-written plans on the fly. If they know your ultimate goals for the mission, they can adapt to the on-scene conditions while still working to achieve your goals.

3. Pre-plan with schools in your jurisdiction.

Make sure your inside response tactics and outside incident management strategies dovetail with the school’s own plan. Your outside management plan should identify primary and alternate locations for a unified command post (get ALL entities into a single command post), staging area(s), inner and outer perimeters, reunification venues, triage areas and helicopter evacuation zones.

4. Anticipate a massive response.

Plan and train for a huge multi-agency response. A school attack is a “Y’all come!” situation. Anticipate a huge response of emergency services. Plan ingress/egress routes and staging areas to avoid gridlock at the incident scene. Put together a plan for communicating with multiple agencies on different radio bands.

5. Have your media talking points ready.

Anticipate a huge, possibly hostile, media response. Plan to get experienced public information officers on scene ASAP. The best move is to keep the incident commander isolated from the media. Let the professionals put out your message until the incident is under control.

The most important thing you can do is to ensure your officers at all levels communicate every potential threat at a school and take the maximum available action against all perpetrators. No threat is a joke. No tip is insignificant. Your agency is the last line of defense for your children.

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