Parkland Officer Who Stayed Outside During Shooting Faces Criminal Charges

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — As bullets ricocheted and bodies fell in the hallways and classrooms at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year, Deputy Scot Peterson was outside the building. Instead of storming in after the 19-year-old gunman, he retreated to a position of safety.

For more than a year after the February 2018 attack in Parkland, Fla., grieving parents have demanded that Mr. Peterson — along with the gunman who killed 17 and injured 17 — be held accountable in what would prove to be one of the nation’s worst school shootings. On Tuesday, law enforcement responded with a sweeping list of charges that resulted in Mr. Peterson’s arrest. His alleged crime: failing to protect the students.

America’s long history of mass shootings have brought a variety of responses: Calls for tighter gun laws, civil lawsuits against companies that manufacture guns and firearm components, collective mourning. But Tuesday’s charges represented a highly unusual case of a lawman arrested for failing to save lives.

Around Parkland, whose politically engaged students helped launch a national student movement for more gun control, there was both surprise and satisfaction.

“I have no comment except to say rot in hell,” Fred Guttenberg, who emerged as an outspoken gun control activist after his daughter, Jaime, died in the attack, wrote on Twitter. “You could have saved some of the 17,” Mr. Guttenberg added, addressing Mr. Peterson. “You could have saved my daughter. You did not and then you lied about it and you deserve the misery coming your way.”

Mr. Peterson, 56, who had been suspended in the immediate aftermath of the attack and later resigned, faces 11 charges of neglect of a child, culpable negligence and perjury. He was booked into the Broward County jail with a bond of $102,000.

The 15-month investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that led to the charges, found that the former Broward County sheriff’s deputy, assigned as a school resource officer to Stoneman Douglas High, “did absolutely nothing to mitigate” the shooting, the department’s commissioner, Rick Swearingen, said in a statement. “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives,” he said.

Officials determined that Mr. Peterson, as well as Sgt. Brian Miller, who was terminated on Tuesday but not charged, “neglected their duties.” Mr. Peterson was taken into custody after an administrative discipline hearing.

The charges were an unusual instance of law enforcement officers being held criminally liable for not protecting the public.

Civil lawsuits have become par for the course following mass shootings in the United States. Families of the victims and survivors themselves use litigation to hold institutions, both public and private, responsible for not keeping people safe, as well as to push for policy changes or to collect compensation for emotional and physical trauma or death.

But experts say that criminally charging a law enforcement officer for allegedly being negligent in his response to a mass shooting is new ground.

“This is the first time I have seen somebody so charged like this,” said Clinton R. Van Zandt, a former profiler with the F.B.I. and an expert on mass shootings. “I think that every police officer, sheriff and F.B.I. agent understands that you have to go to the threat and stop it and that we are no longer going to wait for SWAT or set up perimeters.”

The Department of Law Enforcement said its inquiry showed that Mr. Peterson did not investigate the source of the gunshots, retreated during the shooting while victims were still under attack and directed other law enforcement officers to remain 500 feet away from the building.

The sweeping investigation included interviews with 184 witnesses, along with reviews of video surveillance, to piece together what officials acknowledged was a slow and chaotic law enforcement response. Officials added a perjury charge alleging that Mr. Peterson knowingly made a false statement while under oath in stating that he did not hear shots fired after he arrived at the 1200 building, except for the first two or three shots he heard.

The warrant portrayed Mr. Peterson, the only armed guard on campus, as an officer with a wealth of active shooter training who knew the gunman was inside, but did not go in to try to stop him as he killed and injured students and staff. It details a series of students and faculty who remembered seeing Mr. Peterson outside.

One student, Arman Borghei, told investigators that during the shooting, he looked out a third-floor window and saw Mr. Peterson standing on the side of the 1200 building “with his gun drawn not really doing anything.”

Since he was first interviewed by Broward detectives two days after the killings, Mr. Peterson has said he did respond, by alerting the police, locking the school down and evacuating children in the courtyard. “There wasn’t even time to think,” Mr. Peterson told The Washington Post. “It just happened and I started reacting.”

He said he has run the shooting over and over in his head. “It was my job, and I didn’t find him,” he said of the gunman.

Mr. Miller, who was the first supervisor on the scene, had told investigators that he heard three or four gunshots as he was arriving and believed they were coming from outside the school building. The investigation found that he had gone behind his car, outside of campus, and put on his bulletproof vest, and did not make his first radio transmission to direct a response until five minutes after he arrived — 10 minutes after the first radio communications about the shooting.

Meanwhile, four officers from the nearby Coral Springs Police Department arrived and entered the building where the shooting was occurring, the investigation showed.

In January, Florida’s newly elected Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, suspended the Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, citing neglect of duty and “incompetence.” He named as his replacement Gregory Tony, a former sergeant with the Coral Springs Police Department. In his new position, Sheriff Tony oversaw an internal investigation of seven deputies at the department, including Mr. Peterson.

Jeff Bell, the president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, expressed concern about the decision to charge Mr. Peterson, who was not a member of his organization. He argued that prosecutors had adopted a sweeping interpretation of the state’s negligence law that could put other officers at risk of charges in the future.

“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,” said Mr. Bell, who said he and others were still disappointed by Mr. Peterson’s response to the shooting.

Mr. Van Zandt said prosecutors appeared to be sending a message to the community that “we hear you are disappointed, and we will let the criminal justice system determine whether he made significant mistakes, whether perhaps he was a coward or not, or whether he acted properly with the information that he had.”

A lawyer for Mr. Peterson, Joseph A. DiRuzzo III, said Tuesday that the former deputy’s team would fight “these spurious charges that lack basis in fact and law.” He complained that the prosecution appeared to be “nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution against Mr. Peterson.”

“Today the individuals who have made this charging decision have taken the easy way out and blamed Mr. Peterson for the actions on February 14, 2018, when there has only ever been one person to blame — Nikolas Cruz,” Mr. DiRuzzo wrote in an open letter to “the South Florida community and the American public.”

Constitutional law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, does not generally give people a right to expect the police to protect them against harm.

States can create obligations for the police under certain circumstances — for example, a crossing guard who is assigned to keep children from getting run over. But those would be civil liabilities, said Darren L. Hutchinson, a professor at the University of Florida School of Law, not criminal ones.

Professor Hutchinson noted that the criminal statutes under which Mr. Peterson was charged for his behavior during the shooting, neglect of a child and culpable negligence, were not specifically drafted for law enforcement officers and are usually applied to parents. “Normally we don’t think of police officers as caregivers for children,” he said.

The culpable negligence charge would require proof of behavior so reckless, like driving down a crowded sidewalk, that it could be inferred that the accused intended harm, Professor Hutchinson said. “Under a civil standard that’s a very tough load, and now they’re turning to the criminal standard, which is somewhat tougher, because they have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.

Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, died in the attack, said he welcomed Mr. Peterson’s arrest.

“It’s about accountability, and there’s to be more in Broward County,” said Mr. Pollack, who previously filed a wrongful-death suit against Mr. Peterson. “We knew all along that this guy did something very terrible. He let my daughter die, and a lot of other victims in the school — teachers and children — and he didn’t do his job.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Pollack said he and his lawyer had turned over records — including a deposition of Mr. Peterson — in the civil case to law enforcement officials to consider during their criminal inquiry.

Mr. Pollack said he hoped Mr. Peterson would be convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. “He brought his Bible with him to the deposition,” he said. “Let him bring his Bible with him to prison. He can read the whole thing a bunch of times.”

Daniel Bishop, 17, who was a sophomore when the Parkland shooting took place and was one of dozens of students who traveled to the State Capitol afterward to demand changes to state gun laws, said he was surprised by the news of the former deputy’s arrest.

“It wasn’t his fault,” said Mr. Bishop, who will be a senior in the fall. “Who am I to place blame on anyone besides the one person who should be held accountable?”

The Parkland shooting has become woven into the fabric of Florida politics. Most national attention on the tragedy focused on the movement against gun violence launched by Stoneman Douglas High students. But parents of the dead — and the elected officials who joined forces with them — were a force in the halls of power in Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee, relentlessly seeking answers and accountability, not least from the sheriff’s department.

The state attorney who filed the charges on Tuesday, Michael J. Satz, announced earlier in the day that he would not seek re-election next year. First elected in 1976, Mr. Satz said skipping a campaign for a new term would allow him to focus on the coming death penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the Parkland killings.

Issues raised by the shooting are expected to continue to demand attention in Tallahassee, and not only on matters of gun policy and funding for safer schools. Also pending is how the state might compensate the victims’ families — an issue the families have already taken to court, claiming negligence by the school district and sheriff’s office.


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