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Florida police chief: 'Quit' if you won't run toward gunfire

Michelle Cook challenges officers to do some soul searching with viral tweet

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Northeast Florida police chief is receiving widespread praise across social media in response to a tweet she posted calling for police officers to quit the force if they’re unwilling to put their lives on the line when duty calls.

“If you are a police officer and you think to yourself for even one second that you will not be able to run towards the gunfire…please quit now. We won’t be mad. Innocent lives depend on us to act," wrote Atlantic Beach Police Chief Michelle Cook, adding #dontletthemdown.

The Feb. 22 tweet came the same day Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel announced the resignation of Deputy Scot Peterson, the school resource deputy assigned to protect Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Peterson was armed and on campus when a gunman stormed the school's freshman building Feb. 14. He remained outside of the building while a gunman went on a rampage inside that killed 17 people. Peterson resigned rather than face discipline.

Law enforcement became a magnet for criticism after the mass shooting. Critics were outraged by the FBI's failure to properly follow up on a credible tip about shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz. They also questioned why Cruz flew under the radar when he was the subject of many calls for service.

Still, it was the inaction of Peterson that took center stage. President Donald Trump suggested to a crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference that the deputy either froze or "was a coward." Israel himself said Peterson should have confronted the shooter.

Attorney Joseph Diruzzo, who represents Peterson, defended his client's behavior in a statement provided to multiple news organizations. He said Peterson's response was appropriate because the gunshots were at first believed to be firecrackers.

Dirruzo added that once Peterson realized he heard gunshots, his actions were consistent with his training.

"Peterson heard gunshots but believed that those gunshots were originating from outside of any of the buildings," Diruzzo stated, according to Local10.com. "BSO trains its officers that in the event of outdoor gunfire one is to seek cover and assess the situation in order to communicate what one observes."

Cook, who became police chief last June after leaving the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, told News4Jax that now is the time for law enforcement officers to look themselves in the mirror and ask the tough questions. 

"Every officer needs to have a conversation with themselves and ask, 'Am I willing to go in if faced with similar circumstances?'" said Cook, adding that she believed most officers would risk their own lives to save those of others.

Cook said her agency recently trained at schools with five different law enforcement agencies, and believes officers are prepared to respond if there was a school shooting or other emergency.  

"The part B to that is you have to continue to train. You can't rely on training that's 5, 10, 15 years old. You've got to get up to date with the training that's out there, the best practices and lessons learned," she said. 

Cook said she has not been in an active shooter situation, but said she had guns pulled on her before.

She went on the explain that much has changed since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. At the time, she said, the practice was for police to arrive at a school, surrounding the building and wait for SWAT to respond. Cook said officers can't do that anymore. 

"The most recent best practices that are coming out of alerts are that if you are the officer there and innocent people are dying and your backup is way off, you have an obligation to go in," she said. "And you have an obligation to use the best tactics and the best training that you've been keeping up with to make an effort to eliminate the threat."

Cook's tweet has been shared more than 600 times and liked more than 1,200 times since it was first posted Feb. 22.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

A Florida transplant with Midwest roots, Garrett Pelican is the digital executive producer for News4Jax.