Friday, February 23, 2018

The Deputy Who Didn't Shoot

People, including the President of the United States, are heaping scorn and shame on the Broward County Deputy who was assigned to protect Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, but who did not go into the building to confront the Parkland shooter. He has lost his job. He will probably never live this down, and may never get over his guilt. I don't particularly admire him, but we should not pretend for a second that he is the reason that lives were lost. I might hope and wish he'd gone into that building, but his behavior was completely normal. He's not the first school-protection officer to behave in exactly the same way.

First, let's deal with a simple fact. He was outgunned. The shooter's AR-15 was superior to the deputy's sidearm in nearly every way. It's easier to aim, it has a longer effective range, it's more powerful, and it can fire many more bullets before reloading. The 19-year-old misfit had the law enforcement officer badly outgunned, because that's the country we have decided to live in.

The AR-15's superior firepower makes it more dangerous in the shooter's relatively untrained hands than the deputy's pistol was in his trained hand. The kid had enough firepower to kill the deputy before the deputy could get close enough to return effective fire, and the shooter had enough rounds in the magazine that he didn't need to be an especially good shot. He could just keep shooting. In a straight-up firefight, the expected outcome is that the shooter with the AR-15 kills the deputy with the handgun, not the other way around.

We shouldn't assume that the deputy would have stopped or killed the Parkland shooter if he'd gone in. In fact, he was much more likely to have been killed by the shooter. The deputy would have needed to get some kind of tactical advantage on the shooter, by for example finding a way to get close to him and then shoot behind cover. But entering the building would probably have put him at a tactical disadvantage. He was much more likely to find himself in a position where the shooter had the drop on him, or was firing from behind cover, or both. The deputy had almost certainly undergone active-shooter training which made clear to him exactly how dangerous going into a building after a shooter is.

This is what the old assault-weapons ban was about: about not having the cops outgunned by criminals, or by random kids. But we have decided that the Second Amendment requires us to live in a world where nearly everyone has access to pretty serious firepower. The country where teenagers outgun the cops is exactly what the NRA has been lobbying for, has been demanding, for decades now.

The Broward County Sheriff has also announced from now on school-protection officers will have, well, AR-15s. But that's not a good solution; upping the firepower in an arms race just increases the risk all around. And it's too late now. The shooting is over, and the deputy only had the weapon he had.

Now, does part of my heart wish that the deputy had heroically gone into that building anyway, knowing he was more likely to be killed than the save anybody? Do I wish he'd tried? Sure. Especially when I compare his position to the unarmed teachers who had to sacrifice themselves inside. But we're asking for extraordinary heroism here, even for futile self-sacrifice.

If your position is that the deputy should have gone in and died trying even if it was hopeless, that he had a duty to get killed, that's a position. But admit that's what you're saying. 

Instead of blaming the deputy for not risking his life against the odds, we should ask why he was put in that position at all. We have created, and accepted, a system where the deputy is more likely to be killed himself than to stop the killing. Let's not talk about what he did or didn't do without keeping that in mind.

There was also an armed county deputy at the Columbine shooting. He didn't go into the building either. So what the Broward deputy did is not unexpected; it's what happened before. The deputy at Columbine High did manage to exchange some fire with one of the shooters in the parking lot, but when the killers went into the building he did not follow. Later, he and the same shooter exchanged some more fire through a window, without any real result. You will sometimes find people on the internet looking for evidence of "good guys with guns" point to the Columbine officer and say that it would have been worse without him, but there's no evidence of that. The Columbine shooters managed to kill 13 victims anyway. It's not clear the deputy even managed to slow them down much.

The officer at Columbine waited outside the building until backup arrived. That was not cowardice on his part. It was what he had been trained to do. He did not enter Columbine High, where he was more likely to become a victim than to save one. In fact, a number of other deputies and officers showed up and all remained outside the building, focused on evacuating fleeing students and sometimes providing covering fire for them. They shot back at the killers when the killers shot out windows, but they didn't enter the school. Eventually a SWAT team arrived, a force strong enough to overwhelm the shooters, and that SWAT team went into the building, at which point the Columbine shooters killed themselves.

The Broward County Sheriff has said unequivocally that his deputy should have gone “in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer." The last part is wishful: just because Sheriff Israel would want his deputy to succeed in killing the shooter, that doesn't mean that it would have happened. You can expect your deputy to try. You cannot mandate that he succeed. And Sheriff Israel has to know that his deputy was more likely to be killed by the killer. Even I know that.

As for demanding that the deputy enter the building and engage the shooter, that may be an expectation. But it may be a retroactive expectation. I am not at all sure how the deputy was trained. Taking a defensive position and waiting for backup may, in fact, be what the deputy had been told to do in this situation. Deciding after the fact that he should have done something else is, well, too late. Maybe Broward County deputies are trained to rush into dangerous situations without backup if the situation seems bad enough. I have known cops who rushed into homes before backup could arrive because they thought a situation, such as a domestic dispute, was getting too dangerous too fast. (To be fair, those cops weren't rushing into buildings where there was gunfire.) But neither would I be surprised if standard Broward County training turns out to dictate exactly what the deputy ended up doing.

And, for what it's worth, we have been training a whole generation of cops, across the United States, to be very risk-averse, with training that heavily emphasizes the danger they're in. One of the reasons we've had so many police shootings of non-dangerous civilians is that the cops' training has made them intolerant of even very minor risk, and encouraged them to use deadly force in self-defense even against things that later turn out to have been phantom threats. Those civilians got killed because cops are now trained to approach every tactical situation from a place of fear. They have fear of their lives drilled into them as part of their training. It shouldn't be a surprise that a deputy whose training likely emphasized mortal fear didn't rush to face a genuine threat to his life.

cross-posted from Dagblog; comments welcome there, not here