When gunfire erupted at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, the only armed officer on campus stood outside the building, waiting, as bloody mayhem raged inside.
Scot Peterson, 56, was criminally charged on Tuesday for his inaction during the massacre. The charges have sparked a fierce debate over the legal obligations of police officers to protect others, and whether cowardice can be criminalized.
In total, 17 people were killed and 17 were injured in the Parkland shooting. The families of the victims have long directed their anger against Peterson, saying he could have saved at least some of the students who died.
“Scot Peterson is a disgusting coward,” tweeted Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was killed in the shooting. “He hid behind a concrete wall for 48 minutes instead of saving the lives of my daughter and her classmates. Then he had the guts to go on national television and tell lies. A lot is coming his way and he deserves it all!”
The prosecution will be an uphill battle
Broward County prosecutors charged Peterson with child neglect, culpable negligence, and perjury. Their argument for the first two charges rests on the premise that Peterson was a “caregiver” who neglected his responsibility for the children’s welfare.
Prosecutors allege Peterson also perjured himself by lying under oath and saying he didn’t hear shots fired after he arrived at the building the shooting was occurring in.
But some experts are skeptical about the child neglect and culpable negligence counts, saying prosecuting Peterson will be an uphill battle — and that even in the unlikely event that prosecutors are successful, it could wield a chilling effect on police officers and those aspiring to enter law enforcement.
Peterson’s lawyer, Joseph DiRuzzo, told the Associated Press that Peterson didn’t have any legal obligation to act as a “caregiver” for the students. He also noted that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s own policy at the time did not explicitly direct officers to confront active shooters; it only said officers “may” enter active shooting scenes to save lives.
“Mr. Peterson cannot reasonably be prosecuted because he was not a ‘caregiver,’ which is defined as a parent, adult household member or other person responsible for a child’s welfare,” DiRuzzo said. “Mr. Peterson was not criminally negligent in his actions, as no police officer has ever been prosecuted for his or her actions in responding to an active shooter incident.”
‘You can’t legislate or mandate or manufacture courage’
George Kirkham, a Florida criminologist and former police officer who often serves as an expert witness in police litigation, said he believes Peterson has become a “scapegoat” in the wake of the massacre.
He noted that first responders changed their strategies on active shooters in the wake of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, where rescuers’ delayed response resulted in chaos and further bloodshed.
Nowadays, officers are told to confront shooters immediately.
“That’s a dangerous thing,” Kirkham told INSIDER. “It’s asking from men or women enormous courage. And you can’t legislate or mandate or manufacture courage. It’s either there — the commitment to duty and the honor to serve — or it’s not.”
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association did not respond to INSIDER’s request for comment on Peterson’s charges. But the union’s president, Jeff Bell, told The New York Times that prosecuting Peterson could lead to a slippery slope for other officers.
“I am worried that state attorneys and political officers can start to weaponize criminal charges against law enforcement if you don’t meet their threshold for what you do or should not do,” Bell said.
Peterson may have been ‘afraid’ to go in — but that’s hard to criminalize
Peterson has defended himself by arguing that he didn’t enter the building because he didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from, and that he thought the gunman might have been outside.
Kirkham said he doesn’t buy it. A trained officer can tell the difference between rifle shots, pistol shots, fireworks, and any number of similar sounds — and they can also tell where the gunshots are coming from.
“I believe he knew where the danger was, he knew where it was coming from, and I frankly think he was afraid. And now retrospectively he’s offering all kinds of rationalizations and explanations,” Kirkham said. “I think it’s very hard to criminalize cowardice. You can call him a coward if you want; maybe it’s an appropriate moniker for him. But it’s very hard to criminalize that.”
That’s why Kirkham thinks the only potentially viable charge for Peterson is perjury.
Kirkham said the real failure lies not so much with Peterson, but with former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who only decided after the massacre to equip his deputies with AR-15 rifles. Israel was fired from his post in January 2019.
It’s no wonder Peterson may have been frightened, Kirkham said. He was going up against a gunman with a vastly superior weapon to his handgun.
“All roads, to me, lead back to the gross failure of the administrator, Scott Israel, sitting in his office somewhere saying, ‘Oh the coward should have gone in,'” Kirkham said. “These men and women out there deserve a level playing field. They deserve to have the right equipment and the right training.”