Dropping the ball: The FBI and mass shootings
Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. (Ret.)
The latest school shooting massacre in Florida once again leaves law enforcement with egg on its face. It seems that law enforcement failed in some degree regarding many recent mass shootings or terror attacks. The headline in the days following an attack will read, “Shooting or terror suspect was on the FBI’s radar screen before the attack.” Unfortunately, I have not been wrong in predicting such criminal justice mishaps since the 9-11 attacks.
Lest any reader here think that I will spend this space dumping on the FBI, you should know that is not the case. As a law enforcement professional with nearly 40 years of experience, I’ve dealt with cop-haters and uninformed second-guessers. I’ve reminded them about the decisions we have to make in split seconds and the ills of a “Monday morning quarterback” when it comes to law enforcement decisions.
For starters, I want to point out that the FBI’s choice to not properly research the Florida school shooting suspect Nicholas Cruz was not a split-second decision. Readers of this magazine already know that when a perpetrator decides to pull off an offense, a process takes place. That process takes planning and includes deciding on a target, acquiring the means to attack, and ultimately building up the will to act. Cruz did this via Facebook activity that was a neon sign and the FBI ignored it. At that point, the system was blinking red. That may have been Cruz’s test to see how the world would deal with him simply making the threat. When he saw that it got no one’s attention, he then took the second step by acquiring the means and purchasing firearms. You can’t be a school shooter without guns.
Once a perpetrator sees how the world will deal with them before they act, they put their plan into place. Had the FBI simply knocked on Cruz’s door and questioned him about his Facebook activity, it could have possibly broken the cycle and disrupted his plan. Even that, however, doesn’t mean his intention would have been thwarted.
The FBI is notorious for telling the public in the aftermath of an attack that the suspect was on their radar screen. To this day, I don’t understand the benefit of stressing that point. Once a suspect appears on law enforcement’s radar screen, he should never go off it. So how can we avoid this problem?
Law enforcement resources are limited and expensive. I realize that officials cannot indefinitely tail a suspect, but they can share information. This is where local law enforcement comes into play. The FBI should have alerted the local authorities of what information they had. They should have checked with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives about any firearms owned by Cruz. Local law enforcement had knowledge of Cruz through contacts but not about his threat to be a school shooter. The FBI, on the basis of Cruz’s Facebook post, should have gone to the local U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) to relay the information that they had regarding his threats and to request a search warrant to confiscate his firearms. If the USAO refused due to a lack of probable cause, that is on the USAO. However, in this case, the FBI did not appear to be motivated enough. They did the perfunctory interview of the guy making the complaint and that was it. The FBI could then close the case out due to “no credible threat at this time,” which we now know is not true.
Again, it may appear that I am being critical of the FBI, but so be it. Seventeen high school kids are dead, dozens more injured, and an entire school and community are psychologically damaged. Do you think I care about the FBI’s ego right now? They will get over it. All the FBI had to do was take a few more steps and place this at the foot of the USAO and today I would be writing this column eviscerating the USAO if they did not grant the warrant. The public deserves accountability.
As a former chief executive of a large law enforcement agency with experience as a detective and lieutenant of detectives, I’m familiar with these types of issues. I oversaw a violent crimes unit and homicide division investigations, and I know what it means to hold the pertinent people accountable in such investigations.
I expect no less from the people who claim to be the premier law enforcement agency in the world, and neither should the American people.
The FBI tells the American people that if they “see something, say something.” Unfortunately, the public did say something, and the FBI did nothing.
Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. (Ret.) was the 64th Sheriff of Milwaukee County. He has appeared on many of the national news stations to defend the law enforcement profession.