The Federal Bureau of Investigation said Friday afternoon that it had been alerted to Nikolas Cruz’s troubling behavior and his professed desire to kill, but that it had failed to adequately pursue the lead before Wednesday’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
According to the FBI, a person close to the shooting suspect called its Public Access Line tip line, to report concerns that Cruz might carry out a school shooting: He owned guns, expressed a desire to commit murder, displayed erratic behavior and posted disturbing content on social media.
Authorities say Cruz opened fire on students in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people and injuring dozens more. Cruz, 19, was identified as the shooting suspect, and he was taken into custody in nearby Coral Springs.
The FBI statement released a statement on Friday saying that, under established protocol, the information reported to the bureau should have been assessed as a potential threat to life and forwarded to the organization’s Miami field office. But this never happened. The information never reached Miami, where further investigative steps should have been conducted, according to the bureau.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said his agency is still investigating the facts and committed to finding out what happened in this case and to review the FBI’s process for responding to information from the public.
“It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant, and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly,” Wray said in a written statement. “We have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy. All of the men and women of the FBI are dedicated to keeping the American people safe and are relentlessly committed to improving all that we do and how we do it.”
The FBI isn’t the only law enforcement body that failed to act. A Florida sheriff said late Friday afternoon that his office had received about 20 phone calls about Cruz over the past few years.
But it can be difficult for the FBI to know which tips should be pursued, given the vast amount of information that the bureau collects.
David M. Shapiro, a former FBI special agent who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the tip about Cruz is what the intelligence community calls an “initial lead” and could result in a “preliminary inquiry,” to deduce whether there is a credible threat, in violation of federal law. Based on initial reports, he said, it appears that the tip was handled only cursorily.
“Investigations are political decisions, and this, for some reason or another, did not click and generate a robust inquiry,” Shapiro told Yahoo News.
He said the FBI conducts a risk assessment to evaluate the probability of an occurrence, times the gravity of the impact, which was devastating in this circumstance.
“The idea that a dozen or two dozen people can be killed at any school rather quickly is obvious to anyone who’s lived in this country for more than a few months,” he said. “The difficulty is the probability.”
Shapiro said that many young people habitually say cruel or stupid things, sometimes just to get attention — especially on social media. He suggested that many tips of this nature don’t turn out to be serious threats.
At this point in the Parkland investigation, the Office of Inspector General and the Department of Justice will look at the case, with documented evidence about what the FBI did and did not do.
“Worst-case scenario is that the person on the initial lead assumed it was B.S., because 99 out of 100 of these are B.S., so she didn’t do anything,” Shapiro said. “That would not be good, but we don’t know. We’ll see.”
He added: “To prevent something like this requires a great change in our society and laws. Let people debate that if they want. Certainly, they are justified in debating the gun laws. That’s a valid debate.”
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