Nearly two weeks later, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, remains firmly in the national news cycle, a sharp departure from previous mass shootings.
At first, it was student activists who kept the story going, something that hadn’t really happened in previous school shootings. Then, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office did its part to keep the story going.
At a CNN town hall last week, Sheriff Scott Israel blasted NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch, also in attendance, insisting she could not claim to care about student safety unless she advocated for “less weapons,” and also suggested schools be designed with the goal of keeping intruders out in mind.
A few days later, it was revealed that one of Israel’s deputies, Scot Peterson, who was Douglas High School’s School Resource Officer (SRO), remained outside the building and did not engage the shooter. At least three other deputies who joined him also did not enter the building.
In response, Sheriff Israel, instead of offering contrition, apologizing in any way, or reflecting on how departmental policies might be changed to prevent a repeat of the situation, doubled down by focusing on how he was not responsible for the actions of his deputy.
“I gave him a gun, I gave him a badge, I gave him the training,” Sheriff Israel told a local NBC affiliate. “If he didn’t have the heart to go in, that’s not my responsibility.”
The buck, in other words, stops somewhere else.
The attitude espoused by Sheriff Israel should not surprise us, it’s a fairly predictable product of the culture of policing in America. Since the issue of police violence catapulted into the national political dialogue after the Ferguson protests in 2014, the lack of accountability in policing has become clear.
No amount of attention on the problem has yet made a dent in police practices. There have been nearly 1,000 fatal police shootings a year over the last three years. Prosecutions remain rare. Resignations tend to come only after intense public pressure. Higher level brass around the country continue to skirt responsibility for the actions of their underlings, keeping institutional rot unchecked. The problems only get worse.
Two years ago, when Sheriff Israel was confronted with allegations of widespread corruption in his department, he dismissed them.
“Lions don’t care about the opinion of sheep,” he said, according to the Sun Sentinel, which called it “one of his well-worn sayings.”
Sheriff Israel boasted back then that he didn’t spend “more than 10 seconds” thinking about criticism from his opponents.
And why would he, if he’s not used to being held accountable? No matter how egregious the police misconduct, there will always be a chorus of apologists.
One of the student activists at Douglas High, David Hogg, even defended Peterson.
“He, just like every other police officer out there at heart, is a good person,” Hogg said on MSNBC last week. “Who wants to go down the barrel of an AR-15, even with a Glock? And I know that’s what these police officers are supposed to do, but they’re people too.”
Hogg eventually walked back the comments amid intense public backlash, but they are representative of a wide swath of public opinion on police when their impropriety doesn’t rise to the level of waiting outside a building while children are slaughtered inside. Often, “officer safety” is valued over holding officers accountable for making bad decisions, not just by police unions and political leadership but by much of the public too.
Sheriff Israel did terribly in a Sunday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. When asked if a more competent sheriff’s office could have prevented the slaughter at Douglas High, Israel said: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, OJ Simpson would still be in the record books.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Tapper responded. Who does?
More importantly, will voters care? In the wake of the controversy surrounding Sheriff Israel, the local Democratic Party, expressed support for him, blaming “hyper media” for the stream of criticisms leveled against him.
The sheriff, a Democrat, was just re-elected in 2016. If he avoids a recall election, which the governor and state legislature could yet trigger, he won’t face voters until 2020. If he holds on to the backing of the local party machine, he may never be held accountable.
Even if he is held accountable, via a recall or another method, it will have required continued national outrage over gross incompetence in an incident where 17 young people were killed. This isn’t unusual either—achieving substantive accountability often requires egregious behavior that can sustain enough outrage, hardly the kind of systemic solution that could prevent problematic law enforcement officers like Scott Israel from reaching such positions of power in the first place.