I recently shared this post on LinkedIn about the Parkland, FLA., shooting, which generated a lot of interest, and great comments on the performance, or lack thereof, of school resource officer Deputy Scot Peterson. My main reason for sharing the aforementioned post was to see what others were thinking, and more importantly, spark a conversation that may lend a hand in what we all want- an end to these despicable acts of violence against our children and our way of life.

Gun control is obviously a hot issue relative to this topic; however, I want to put the microscope on Leadership and Human Performance as part of the solution.

There are numerous articles on the web with various opinions on the Parkland shooting, which obviously question Deputy Peterson’s decision to not run towards the gun fire.

Peterson was armed and on campus when a gunman stormed the school’s freshman building on February 14th. He remained outside the building while a gunman went on a rampage inside, killing 17 people. In addition, there has been much written about Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s leadership actions before and after this horrific event. Some would argue Israel failed to accept responsibility for his role in this unfortunate event, and that, as a leader, he was too quick in his rush to judgment regarding his department’s performance.

My initial response to this event was to attack Deputy Peterson’s tactical decision. Like most, I do not agree with his decisions during the incident. However, he is the only one who truly knows WHY he made the choice to remain outside the building.

Remembering Columbine…

Much has changed since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

At that time, the practice was for police to arrive at a school, surround the building, and wait for SWAT officers to arrive. We’ve learned over the years that we can no longer wait- people die with every second that passes. So, the key question is this: WHY, with all his years of experience, did deputy Peterson not do what we expected him to do? WHY did he act and look like, as some would say, a coward?

Pointing Fingers

A huge problem in many organizations continues to be that when mistakes occur, the ‘buck’ stops with the person who took (or didn’t take) the action. Senior leaders often react with, “Who was responsible…who can we hold accountable?!”

Sheriff Israel’s comments following the event offered a perfect example of such a reaction when he publicly voiced his disgust with Peterson, indicating that had his department acted differently, the shooter might have been foiled. I ask you this: If you worked in Sheriff Israel’s department, how inspired would you (or your fellow officers) be affected by such rhetoric coming from the top?

The Reality

While mistakes were indeed made, years of data have revealed that 84 to 94 percent of the time mistakes (aka “human error”) are made, they can be directly attributed to process, programmatic, or organizational issues. Setups for human error are everywhere. In addition, human beings are fallible. On any given day, anyone can make a mistake. Even the best people make mistakes. This accounts for the remaining 6 to 16% of the equation.

Unfortunately, Police Officers are often called to respond with little time to survey the landscape for landmines. Combine this with the immediacy of stress and time pressure, and the potential for flat-out human error rises exponentially- and this under conditions where mistakes often cause injury or death.

This underscores the absolute need for quality training and proper selection of personnel.

When Something Goes Wrong…

In today’s environment, we have a tendency to play judge and jury.  This appears especially true when accusatory fingers can be pointed at law enforcement.  It’s incumbent upon every law enforcement professional, especially leadership, to not play into this game.  Doing so tenders potentially irreparable damage to reputation, careers, and the morale of those not directly involved.

While both media and outspoken public tends immediately find fault, constraint in what is said must be exercised.  Further, if similar issues are to be averted in the future, serious probing questions must be asked before any conclusions can be drawn.  For example, in this case…     

 

  • If Deputy Peterson took his actions (or non-actions) based upon fear, how did he get that way?
  • Why did he not have confidence in himself and his skills?
  • If fear was not the issue, what constrained his actions that day?
  • What are the physical performance requirements to be a school resource officer?
  • Was he the proper individual to have been assigned to that post in the first place?
  • Does Deputy Peterson have limitations?
  • If he does have limitations, did his supervisor know what they were?
  • Did the department provide the tools and training he needed to perform that day?
  • Were the department’s policy and procedure relative to active shooters clear to all personnel prior to that day?

When you peel back underlying layers on police-involved shootings or allegations of poor tactics, you most always discover contributing issues.  Issues such as limited human dynamics (i.e., auditory exclusion, tunnel vision etc.), outdated policies and procedures, and lack of training. All of these play a role in human performance, and what did (or did not) occur.

 

So, where do we go from here?

First, when people have legitimately done wrong, this should never be watered down or covered up, irrespective of position or title.

Second, any leader, especially in law enforcement, must resist the [easy] temptation to cast blame or throw officers under the bus. No conclusions regarding officer culpability should ever be made before all facts, contributing factors, and chronology have been ascertained.

Third, when doing an investigation, ALL contributing factors must be considered. It’s always easy to blame the officer on the ‘sharp end of the stick’, when horizontal and vertical culpability often exists.

In the environment in which we currently find ourselves, it is critical that law enforcement leaders NOT be reactive. Rather, we must be properly responsive when issues arise, and proactive at all times.

Quantity and quality of training is often an issue. Unfortunately, training is usually addressed AFTER an event. As such, a commitment must be made to enhance leadership and critical incident management training, hiring practices, training academy curriculum and standards, officer proficiency requirements, and in this instance, appropriate officer assignment to high-risk jobs and tasks.

Again, I ask, WHY did Deputy Peterson not do what we all thought he should have done? Stop the finger pointing. Discover the true answers. FIX what needs to be fixed, and use the information and insights gained to assist in making our schools safe for our children.

Stay safe.

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