Since the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, many government officials have walled off information needed to assess how well they did their jobs.
At the head of the pack is Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, who suggests the school’s resource officer acted cowardly during the mass shooting and two deputies mishandled earlier warnings. Aside from that, though, the sheriff wants you to take his word that he and his deputies did amazing work before, during and after the shooting.
But that’s not how it works. To hold government accountable, we need a better picture of what happened. And that means we need to see the evidence ourselves, starting with the security video taken outside the school.
The video is not the only public record sought by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and other media organizations in the aftermath of the shooting and the epic government failure surrounding it. Among other things, we’ve also requested copies of the 911 calls, police radio calls and incident reports from the 39 times BSO deputies were called to the home of Nikolas Cruz, who’s confessed to carrying out the rampage that killed 17 and injured 17.
But the video is an important first step in answering urgent questions, including: What went right and wrong outside the school? Where was School Resource Officer Scot Peterson during the shooting? How long did it take BSO deputies to arrive? Did they enter the building or not? Were Coral Springs officers first to go in? Were emergency medical technicians restrained from entering? How long before rescue trucks were able to race victims to hospitals?
The answers are needed now because there’s a lot of back and forth over who did what. Peterson says the sheriff is wrong about what he saw on the video and Coral Springs police say several BSO deputies didn’t enter the school, either.
Meanwhile, we’re in the middle of a major public debate about how to harden schools, whether to change gun laws, how to handle potentially dangerous gun owners and most importantly, whether our children are safe in school.
And laws are being formed without the benefit of knowing what exactly happened.
So on Thursday, the Sun Sentinel’s lawyers will appear before Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Levenson to make the case that there’s good cause to release the video.
“By refusing to release the video, the public is being deprived of significant and first-hand information that would allow them to have an informed voice on what changes may be necessary to avoid such tragedies in the future, and to potentially provide an answer to the pressing question of whether more lives could have been saved,” says our lawyer, Dana McElroy, of the Tampa-based firm of Thomas & LoCicero.
Sheriff Israel doesn’t want to release the video, which is curious, given that he’s already given a detailed description of its substance. At a televised press conference eight days after the shooting, he said he felt “the public needed to know” that the video showed Peterson did “nothing” except get on his radio while shots were being fired. The sheriff said Peterson “never went in” as he should have.
But four days later, Peterson, through his lawyer, said the criticism was unwarranted and that the video (along with eyewitness testimony) will exonerate him.
We tried to get the video — and please note, we only seek the video taken outside the school — from Broward school district officials, but they apparently gave their only copy to BSO.
Government agencies cannot give their only copy of a public record — which includes photos and videos — to another agency. The Florida Supreme Court made that clear in a Tampa case, where the city “improperly played a ‘shell game’ ” to avoid disclosure. Given that, BSO should make a copy and return the video — and the district should release it.
The law provides an exception if the video shows a security system. But it also says that if there’s good cause for releasing it — and good cause certainly exists here — it can still be released.
Besides, the school’s surveillance cameras are hardly a secret. They’re clearly visible, as they should be. People should know they’re being watched.
Regardless, the school district plans to tear down Building 12, which makes moot the argument about its security cameras.
The sheriff argues that the video shouldn’t be released because it’s part of an active investigation. But the school district isn’t a law enforcement agency and so can’t claim “active criminal investigation.” Plus, there’s an exemption if the information has already been disclosed, as it has. Plus, the video doesn’t show the shootings, but law enforcement’s response. Plus, Cruz has already confessed.
In a related case, Circuit Judge Charles Greene found “good cause” existed for releasing otherwise-exempt records about how the Florida Department of Children and Families treated Cruz after he cut himself. To its credit, DCF proactively sought the ruling to release the records.
It was disappointing to see State Attorney Mike Satz’s office argue against public disclosure. It said releasing the video could affect the grand jury’s proceedings, though the grand jury quickly wrapped up Wednesday with a 34-count indictment of Cruz. It also said the release could affect the trial jury, though Cruz has already confessed. It even said the release could potentially hurt “the due process rights of Nikolas Cruz.”
If Cruz’s public defender doesn’t object, why should the prosecutor?
Thursday’s hearing is set against a backdrop of state lawmakers chipping away at public records and your right to know. As one example, they exempted autopsy records from public disclosure a few years ago. Before quickly agreeing with them, know that no newspaper wants to run such photos on the front page. Now consider the case of an inmate who died at Florida State Prison in Stark, as recounted by Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation.
“According to the medical examiner’s report, which is all we get now, he died of heart failure. But if you look at the autopsy photos, which were still available then, he had boot marks on his chest. He got stomped to death. So of course his heart failed. That’s why we sometimes need access. We need to make sure government is doing its job.”
Sheriff Israel is holding back more than the video. He’s also refusing to release the incident reports from all those visits to Cruz’s house, which are clearly public record. His office says it’s overwhelmed with records requests. Yet it found the time to gather those reports and give its edited assessment of each. Copies would have been faster — and better.
The school district is slow to comply, too. So are city police departments that responded to the shooting. Like we said, many governments are walling off information needed to assess their performance. And these lawsuits are costly. Government gets to use your money.
We’ve heard a lot of talk these last few weeks about the Second Amendment and your right to bear arms. But there’s a reason our Founding Fathers put “a free press” in the First Amendment. Because to make informed decisions about our government, people need to know what’s going on.
And for the record, when it comes to your right to know, the Sun Sentinel is on the front lines, fighting for you.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.