NL native on responding to one of the country’s worst school shootings
New London native Dave Dittman was looking to end his law enforcement career on a high note, leaving behind more than three decades in the trenches to focus on the safety and protection of children in a new role as a school resource officer.
He could not have predicted that just two years into what some might call a cushy part-time retirement gig, he would be carrying an AR-15 rifle, stepping over the bodies of dead high school students and searching for their killer in one of the worst school shootings in history.
Dittman, 68, was back in Connecticut with his wife Tricia earlier this month to attend his 50th high school reunion at St. Bernard High School in Montville. He sat for an interview at The Day to discuss his time in police work and response to the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 in which 17 people were shot and killed and others injured.
Dittman, the youngest of four boys and the brother of former New London Police captain and Mashantucket Police Chief Bill Dittman, worked for three decades with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department before his retirement in 2016. Most of his time was in plain clothes as a detective and in special investigations units, spending time with the FBI’s fugitive task force and counterterrorism units.
He was hired as a school resource for the Coral Springs Police Department in 2016 in a city that wanted a police presence in all of its schools.
“It was a good way to end my career. I chased felons for 35 years and now I get fist bumps and high fives from the kids,” Dittman said.
It was Feb. 14, 2018, and Dittman was working at the Country Hills Elementary School, just a short distance from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where the shooting occurred.
Dittman had already helped usher the young students into their parents’ vehicles, answering questions about the ashes on his forehead because of Ash Wednesday, when emergency vehicles rushed past ― fire, EMS and Broward County Sheriff’s Office vehicles.
When the call came across his radio for an active shooter, jurisdiction lines become irrelevant because of the lives that might be in jeopardy, Dittman said.
“All the training over all of those years kicked in,“ Dittman said.
He drove to the scene and grabbed his AR-15 rifle. Dittman said he was already wearing a ballistic vest and so looked the part of SWAT team member when he followed a fellow Coral Springs officer past the Broward Sheriff’s deputies crouched near their vehicles, training his rifle on third floor windows to cover his fellow officers as they made their way into the school.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office would later be criticized for its officers’ response to the shooting, not going in to immediately confront the shooter, Nikolas Cruz. The high school’s resource officer, Scot Peterson, was later fired and criminally charged with child neglect for failing to confront the gunman. He was later acquitted of the charges. Peterson was among several Broward County Sheriff’s deputies fired in the wake of the shooting.
Dittman said the group used trees as cover as they advanced as a cohesive unit, a testament to training and experience. They entered the building shoulder to shoulder into a long hallway lined with classrooms and stairwells full of smoke.
“I thought a smoke bomb had been set off. It turned out it was the drop ceiling. The concussion from (the shooter’s) rifle caused a dust cloud to come down.” Dittman said,
“Right at our feet when we came in are two dead children, outside a classroom,” Dittman said. “We’re focused on the killer. As police you have to stop the killing. Which means moving past the children.”
Dittman said the group came upon one door with bullet holes and the window broken — Room 1217. The killer, Dittman said, did not get in because it was locked, but he did manage to fire through the opening. The room was peppered with bullet holes.
“We hustled the kids out. Five kids were shot in that classroom. One of the survivors lost a brother in another classroom. We had three bodies in my classroom. There were remnants of the killer’s presence outside the classroom, shell casings, too many to count ... ” he said.
Police had flooded the building by this time, chasing the shooter based on closed circuit television footage that turned out to be 20 minutes behind. The killer had already left the building.
Dittman went to each child, stopped and prayed.
“I’m not a very religious person but this was different,” Dittman said.
It was at that time that Dittman recalled his active shooter training. Teens had played the role of victims in those drills, wearing makeup to mimic injuries.
“We use teenagers as role players who play like they’re dead, play like they’re injured, play like they’re the bad guys. And to me, it was almost like I was hoping that was going on, that it was a mistake, that these kids would jump up and slap high fives with me or something,” Dittman said.
By then, news about the shooting was everywhere.
“I’m in the classroom alone with these three bodies. My wife called. All I said was ‘It’s a bad scene. I’m OK. I’ll call you later.’ It seemed like an eternity before the bomb squad arrived to check for live devices,” Dittman said.
Later, during debriefing with fellow officers, Dittman said he received accolades for going into the school, especially because of his retiree status.
“I told people, ‘God forbid this ever happens again. If it does, you get your ass in your car and get to work. I don’t care if they call you or not. You have to take a role,’ ‘’ Dittman said.
Bill Walker, chief investigator for the Broward County State’s Attorney’s Office and a longtime former colleague of Dittman at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, said he’s not surprised Dittman was among the first to go into the school.
Walker sat with parents in the wake of the massacre and answered questions about safety of their children. He recalls one parent calling “to get those old timers out of the school,” a response to the apparent ineffectiveness of some of the sheriff’s deputies in response to the shooting. Walker had to interrupt the parent to defend Dittman.
“You don’t have to be a 25-year-old to run into the heat. It’s the person themselves. I would have been surprised if (Dittman) was there and didn’t run in,” Walker said.
Dittman said he was at work in his elementary school the day after the shooting, fielding questions from parents about student safety.
He recalls one parent asking for “taller fences around the playground with barbed wire and armed guards. I said, ‘They call that prison,’ ” Dittman said.
Dittman said he can’t reconcile the inaction of some of the sheriff’s deputies that day but defends law enforcement as a whole.
“Who knows what goes through people’s heads. The bad part was the whole agency was labeled as cowards and that’s not true. Personally, I believe it was poor leadership and policies that led to a breakdown in communication and tactics,” Dittman said.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office had only a year prior responded to a different mass shooting the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport where five people were shot and killed.
Dittman retired as a school resource officer in 2022, to the dismay of the parents, staff and students at Country Hills Elementary.
“It was the best way to end my career. The parents were more appreciative of me being in school because they knew I wouldn’t run away. I’m tried and tested,” Dittman said.
His last day in the school district was declared Dittman Day. Staff wore Dittman Day shirts, hundreds of students wore blue T-shirts with stick-on police badges and there was a parade.
Dittman said he “got a little misty” that day but still returns to the school as part of a volunteer reading program.
In his own words
Blessed Are the Peacemakers, by Dave Dittman
As a School Resource Officer (SRO) you do not know how bad your day is going to be until you hear “Active Shooter” in a nearby school. When I say ‘nearby’ I don’t mean a couple miles away or even in an area zip code. I’m talking a couple hundred yards away and within sight of your assigned school.
My school dismissal was complete as I heard the call and raced to my patrol car, parked close by, near my assigned post. I activated my lights and siren as I negotiated the already jammed traffic. Traffic was affected prior to the police call because, as odd as it may seem, fire/rescue was dispatched prior to police and those units were already enroute.
The date was February 14, 2018, Valentine’s Day as well as the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday, marking the start of Lent. My day began with a stop at the supermarket on my way to school. I bought roses for my wife along with the components for a stay-at-home dinner for the holiday. After refrigerating the flowers and groceries I began my workday, monitoring the safe arrival of the 800 plus children at my elementary school. Little did I know that those items would stay in that school refrigerator for three days.
You see that date wound up being one of the worst mass shootings in the United States at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD). Thirty-four, mostly children were shot, with 17 of those murdered. Many say ‘killed’ or ‘died’, but I prefer ‘murdered’ since that is what occurred. People are ‘killed’ in car crashes and in natural disasters, people are ‘murdered’ when someone points a loaded rifle at them and begins firing.
I remember attending fugitive investigators conference several years ago in which Fred Goldman was one of the guest speakers. Mr. Goldman refused to say OJ Simpson’s name, preferring to call him “the man who murdered my son” instead. That made sense to me then and makes even more sense to me now. I refuse to use the accused’ name unless I am required to do so during legal proceedings.
As mentioned, this was also Ash Wednesday and because we were able to leave our schools for lunch or breaks, I went to my parish church to receive ashes on my forehead in lieu of going to lunch. No masses were scheduled during my lunch so I went to the parish office to see if the priest would administer ashes. Initially the priest refused my request saying, with a condescending tone, “we’re trying to avoid drive-thru ashes.” Insisting that this was the only time that I could make it, he finally relented. I guess clergy have bad days too.
Little did either one of us realize what would occur little more than 2 hours later that would change so many lives forever, as evil descended on the bedroom community of Parkland. One of the changes since that day is that SRO’s no longer leave schools without being relieved by another sworn officer.
After returning to school, I answered several questions from the children regarding the ashes on my forehead. Elementary school children are always curious and have little to no filters. Five- to twelve-year-olds can come up with interesting questions. Since we wear ballistic body armor that is adorned with 2 radio’s, medical kits, tasers and sidearms, the inquiries can be quite interesting. The children and police enjoy a great rapport at this level. SRO’s do not act as disciplinarians, with our main function being the safety of everyone at school and as mentors for the students. Therefore, the students engage freely and frequently with their SRO’s and because SROs are also members of the community, we see them in settings other than on campus, i.e., shopping or at local athletic fields.
Often, we get questions about our firearms. I tell them that we only have them to keep ‘bad guys’ away. A discussion about staying away from any firearms they may happen upon, and notifying an adult usually follows questions about guns.
This is probably a good time to explain my background. At the time of the MSD tragedy, I was 63 years young, a senior citizen in most circles, and had been a police officer for approximately 40 years. I worked nearly every aspect of this profession, including about 20 years in task forces assigned to the FBI. I worked violent crimes and fugitives during the 90’s and anti-terrorism after 9/11 until I retired from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department (FLPD). It was the Fort Lauderdale Police who assigned me to the multi-jurisdictional task forces. I was proud to wear that uniform until I reached my retirement age. Having been retired for 2 whole weeks, I applied to the SRO program here in Coral Springs, FL and was elated to be chosen. I considered my age as benefit with the children looking to me as someone they could ask difficult questions freely and without judgment from me.
I knew that I brought a plethora of experience to this position, but I hadn’t worked uniformed road patrol for decades. So, I was nervous about handling the day-to-day activities associated with wearing a uniform. With the help of willing patrol officers and other SROs I was able to survive my new assignment. The Coral Springs Police initially had one officer assigned to every 2 elementary schools and wanted police presence in all city schools. Since there are 12 elementary schools, they sought to hire 6 retirees to share schools with full-time SROs. Therefore, the retirees are referred to as Seasonal School Resource Officer’s (SSROs) since we work when the children are attending school. Great for retired people as we have the summers, weekends, and holidays off (without pay of course).
I was able to form bonds with students, staff, and parents at my school. Frequently I would tell the adults that I chased felons for 35 years and now I get fist bumps and high fives from kids. I used some of the same verbiage with the kids that I used with my own son, telling them that I am happy to see them and that I am proud of them. Sadly, those are words some may not hear in their homes. Hopefully they will remember the police in a positive light despite entities that would try to convince them otherwise.
Even though I mentioned that this city has 12 elementary schools, they are a part of a countywide school system which ranks 6th in size within the United States. As such, our schools teach children from other cities which along with a school choice option give SROs a larger spectrum of students to interact with, from the affluent to the underserved.
Getting back to February 14th, 2018, my school dismisses as 2:10pm. I had positioned myself at a car pickup line and monitored the students leaving campus, helping to ensure that the right child entered the correct vehicle and safely exited our campus. Just as the last vehicle left the pickup area I saw multiple fire, EMS, and Broward County Sheriff’s Office vehicles speeding toward MSD. You see, MSD is in Parkland, FL which used to have its own police department and fire department until that city began to contract those services to outside agencies. The Sheriff’s Office contracted law enforcement services while Coral Springs took over fire and EMS response.
Coral Springs is in such close proximity to MSD that Coral Springs officers began speeding to the scene. Coral Springs officers even have children attending MSD and the call for active shooter alerts anyone nearby to respond without regard to jurisdiction. People are reportedly being harmed and someone needs to get there and interdict. My partner was the first Coral Springs officer at the MSD campus and ascertained the location of the active shooter scene at this huge complex which looks more like a community college than a high school. The massive property consists of 13 buildings on 45 acres of land. MSD had 3200 students along with 200 staff members at that time.
I negotiated my way through a maze of traffic until I reached the northern perimeter road of the school. The road was 4 lanes with a grassy median. It was necessary to drive against traffic to reach a spot directly across from the building in question, the 1200 building also known as the freshman building. I knew that some people questioned employing someone my age in a position most considered a young person’s game. However, I was also aware that I was still combat effective despite my grey hair and low badge number.
I grabbed my AR-15 rifle from its locked rack directly to my right and exited my marked patrol car and approached some Broward Sheriff’s deputies crouched alongside their patrol cars to get info. One said something to the effect of ‘he’s shooting out the top windows.’ Almost immediately I saw 3 other CSPD officers who I did not know by name at the time. One officer said, “let’s go” and the four of us ran toward a locked chain-link vehicle gate. I trained my rifle on the 3rd floor windows to cover the officer cutting the lock/chain which secured the gate. Clearly seeing the bullet holes in those windows, I shouted to alert the other officers. I charged my rifle slamming a round into the chamber while keeping my thumb on the rifle’s safety lever, ready to engage a threat.
Once through the gate, we made our way to the east side of doors of the 1200 building, using 2 rows of trees for cover as we advanced. The manner in which the four of us bonded into a cohesive unit is a testament to our training and experience. After running across an open area, we reached the eastside doors of the 1200 building and hunkered down to check if the doors
were unlocked. The doors were opened by a member of our response cadre of Coral Springs officers and we entered shoulder to shoulder as even more officers began arriving from throughout our city.
The long hallway lined with classrooms and stairwells was clouded with smoke, making for poor visibility. Initially, I suspected that a smoke device was used, but later discovered that the cloud was caused by dust falling from the drop ceiling tiles reacting to the concussion of the shooter’s rifle firing. We could see figures through the dust cloud on the opposite end of the hall. Someone shouted “blue, blue” and that was met with a retort of “we’re blue, we’re blue.” That verbal exchange likely saved an officer from ‘friendly fire’ as we advanced into the single hallway. I cautiously disengaged the safety lever on my rifle, hearing a barely audible ‘click’ but kept the weapon pointed down in a low-ready position. We checked a stairwell and saw no one and I continued checking the right side of the hallway as others checked the left. Room 1217 was the first classroom encountered and we saw no damage.
The first 2 victims that we encountered were laying, prone on the hallway floor, outside of the closest classrooms. Someone checked for vital signs as others continued to search for the shooter in order to end the carnage. Procedures have changed since Columbine. The first officers on scene go in to look for and stop the shooter. ‘Stop’ is a relative term which has several meanings, and every situation is different, and in order to stop the shooter, initial responding officers must often bypass victims in order to impact on the shooter’s ability to inflict even more harm. Follow-up officers and medics will treat those victims encountered during the entry. The next classroom that I saw was 1216.
The door of room 1216 was peppered with bullet holes. The door was metal with a narrow slot type window, which I discovered later is referred to as a vision panel, above a locked lever style handle. I peered through the spiderwebbed cracks and gaps in the glass of the window and could see multiple victims along with live children who had pressed themselves against an interior wall, as far from the door as possible. I shouted to the closest officers, “we have victims and survivors in here.” It was necessary to reach through the door glass which was shattered by bullets and grab the door handle from the inside. I shouted, “is he in here, is he in here?”
Several children shook their heads and responded “no.” We then directed them out of the classroom to officers who could guide them to a safer location. Officers continued to arrive in numbers that I later described as “looking like someone had kicked an anthill” while they poured through the doors.
Once the survivors exited to safety, I was left alone with the bodies of three children whose vital signs were checked. I checked the room to ensure no one was concealed in some of the blind spots about the room and looked outside the classroom door. On the floor near that door, I saw remnants of the killer’s presence; a camouflaged pattern shirt, backpack, a balaclava mask, and rifle magazines; some of which looked like rounds were still loaded inside as well as too many shell casings to count.
I looked at a supervisor and shouted to him, more accurately at him, “I’m not leaving, these are important!” pointing to the evidence before me; clearly tools of the carnage that occurred in this once safe space. Pacing between the door and the child victims, I stopped and prayed over each child individually. What I said to them is between those children, God, and myself. Eventually I was relieved by an explosive detection officer. Shooters have been known to leave live devices at their scenes to impact survivors or first responders. I made the bomb tech aware of the evidence strewn in front of room 1216 prior to leaving the 1200 building.
Later, we discovered that the video feed from the CCTV at school had been delayed. A critical mistake which was responsible for getting untimely reports of the killer’s location. Notice I switched my description from ‘shooter’ to ‘killer’ since I’ve seen the human destruction firsthand at this point. The killer walked off the campus like any other student. You see the accused killer was a former student, familiar with the campus and the surrounding area. He was eventually captured in a residential area, on foot by a uniformed officer from another jurisdiction. Which may be appropriate because all the initial responding officers, the Coral Springs Police Department, were from “another jurisdiction.” The jurisdiction responsible for that high school was and still is the Broward Sherriff’s Office, basically a contractor for the city of Parkland. The Broward Sheriff’s Office eventually took over the scene as we exited the 1200 building. The Coral Springs officers who had been inside gathered outside the freshman building while a uniformed Sheriff’s deputy provided an overwatch of the building.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office response caused a political firestorm, resulting in the removal of the sheriff by Florida’s governor. I felt terrible for the majority of the sheriff’s deputies because many segments of the public painted them with the same brush, labelling them as cowards. Personally, I believe poor leadership and policies led to a breakdown in communication and tactics. Especially since the same Broward Sheriff’s Office experienced a mass shooting approximately one year earlier in a terminal at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport resulting in nine deaths. I have worked with many Broward deputies throughout my career who act with courage and conviction each day.
One criticism that I expressed during an after-action debriefing was my displeasure with the Sheriff of Broward County, who during televised press conferences, thanked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, our version of state police and the FBI, an agency who dropped the ball regarding the killer prior to the murders. I pointed out that aerial photographs of the scene clearly show black and white Coral Springs police cars up close to the building while green and white sheriff’s office vehicles occupied the outer perimeter, a safe distance away. I would caution those who hesitate in the face of danger will live with their choices for eternity.
In the aftermath, one of the officers who I met up with to start our entry into the school looked at me and said something to the effect of “I’ll go in with you any day” in front of our peers. Remember that I didn’t know the names of the officers that I was with that afternoon? Well, I know their names now and will never forget their bravery in the face of an unknown assailant as we entered the smoky abyss of the 1200 building at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
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