By the time other police officers entered the school — 11 minutes after the shooting began — 17 people were dead and another 17 were injured. Surveillance video shows Peterson hid for almost an hour, never setting a foot inside the school he had sworn to protect.
The reaction to his arrest has been unsparing, hitting a collective nerve about moral responsibility and failure to act in the midst of a horrific attack. He was quickly dubbed “The Coward of Broward.” The anger is raw and festering; many people are even more enraged at Peterson than the shooter.
“I have no comment except to say rot in hell Scott Petersen,” tweeted Fred Guttenberg after the arrest; his 14-year-old daughter died in the attack. “You could have saved some of the 17. You could have saved my daughter. You did not and then you lied about it and you deserve the misery coming your way.”
“You had one job,” said Meghan McCain on “The View” the next morning. “When you’re talking about 15-year-old kids who were heroes and stepped up and a man who was trained, who decided to sit back for 45 minutes while this was going on? You’re a coward.”
Peterson’s attorney argues that his client is a scapegoat and that no other police officer has ever been prosecuted for their actions involving an active shooter. Legal experts say he is unlikely to be convicted on most of the charges.
But this isn’t really about a court case. It’s about the larger questions of courage and cowardice, accountability and justice. Amid all the outrage heaped on Peterson sits the unspoken question: Who will protect us and our children in a country with 27 active shooters cases just last year?
The willingness to put their lives on the line is one of the reasons we venerate first responders, a timeless social contract that honors courage: the police and firefighters who ran in the twin towers when everyone else ran out. And all the daily sacrifices that don't make headlines.
Cowardice, on the other hand, has always been both a moral and tangible sin, punishable by scorn, social condemnation, even death under military law. “Prove a man a coward, and you leave him utterly deprived of character, so that none can honor him or suffer his society,” reads a 1863 letter to the New York Times.
There are astonishing acts of bravery: The officers who stormed into the Virginia Beach municipal building earlier this month, finding the shooter and preventing more carnage. We call those students who died confronting school shooters (a 21-year-old at the University of North Carolina, an 18-year-old at Colorado high school last month alone) heroes, a cold comfort to their grieving parents.
Until the school shooting at Columbine High School 20 years ago, law enforcement was trained to wait for backup before confronting an active shooter, says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. Now the rule is to rush into the scene and find the killer, even though those officers are at higher risk of being shot.
“Getting your head around the fact that you may have to risk your life to save someone else’s life is really what makes being a cop fundamentally different than anyone else’s job in society,” he says.
Managing fear is at the heart of the national debate about police shootings. When an officer’s terror overwhelms their ability to properly assess a potential threat, unarmed citizens can die. Police face increasing criticism and demands of prosecution for excessive violence; now Peterson is facing jail for his inaction.
“He’s going to be called a coward,” Wexler says, “and to be
called a coward is almost worse than being legally charged.”
But here’s the chilling reality: “There’s never going to be enough cops to put them in enough places to prevent this,” he says. “Today it’s the schools, tomorrow it will be hospitals. Next it will be newsrooms. In Florida, now they’re going to have cops in all of the schools. But even having said that, these things happen in a relatively short amount of time.”
The FBI defines an active shooter incident as one or more individuals attempting to kill people in a populated area — there were 27 incidents last year with 85 people killed and 128 wounded.
The uncomfortable truth is we want someone else to be the hero. We want to stay alive. We want the people we love to stay alive. The Department of Homeland Security pocket guide to an active shooter reads: Run. Hide. And as a last resort, fight.
And we desperately want to believe that a good guy with a gun will stop a bad guy with a gun, especially if that good guy signed up for the job.
Peterson, 56, was arrested by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement after a 15-month investigation into his movements during and following the shooting. The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, began his six-minute rampage on the first floor of the 1200 building. Peterson raced to the scene two minutes after reports of shots fired but did not go inside. The charges stem from the two teachers and eight students who were killed or injured after Peterson arrived but took cover outside.
“Deputy Peterson knowingly and willingly failed to act pursuant to his law enforcement training and sworn duties which directed him to promptly address the active shooter (Cruz) within the 1200 building; instead retreating to a position of increased personal safety,” reads the arrest warrant.
The investigation included video footage of Peterson and also revealed that he instructed responding officers to stay away from the building instead of storming it.
“He stood there for some 45 to 48 minutes and did nothing,” Rick Swearingen, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, told CBS Miami. “As law enforcement officers, despite whatever policies and procedures our agencies have, we swear an oath to protect the public that we serve.” The arrest, he says, shows that an officer will “be held accountable if you don’t do your job.”
Peterson, a 33-year-veteran of the sheriff’s department, contends he did nothing wrong: He says his actions were consistent with his training, that he believed the shots were coming from someplace outside. He says he radioed for the school to go on lockdown and told other responding officers to stay out of sniper range. He says the shooting was over before he understood what was happening.
“It’s haunting,” he told The Washington Post last year. “I’ve cut that day up a thousand ways with a million different what-if scenarios, but the bottom line is I was there to protect, and I lost 17.”
Peterson’s version of events runs counter to the investigation and to the understanding of his peers. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who eventually lost his job in the fallout of the deaths, said Peterson “clearly” knew the shooter was inside the building. During a news conference, Israel said he was “devastated. Sick to my stomach. There are no words ”
Of course, it’s easier to blame one deputy than address the failures that made the shooting possible: the ability of the 19-year-old shooter to legally purchase an automatic weapon, the issue of his untreated mental illness, repeated missed warnings and other never-ending debates.
A responding officer who ran into Peterson shortly after the shooting said he displayed classic signs of panic: breathing heavily and pacing back and forth.
The average person responds to danger instinctually: Fight or flight is our evolutionary default, backed by adrenaline, which increases blood flow in the body and brain. Some people run, some fight and some freeze. How many of us would run toward gunfire? The answer, if we’re honest, is not many.
What we traditionally call courage is overriding fear for a greater good — something as abstract as a soldier’s patriotism, or something as simple as a parent’s love that drives them into a burning house to save their children. First responders can be just as terrified as civilians, but are trained to manage fear so they can perform their jobs.
“It’s fighting through fear when you’re scared out of your mind,” says Rich Emberlin, who worked as a police officer for 30 years, including 15 years with the Dallas Police Department’s SWAT team and as an uncover officer. “Was I scared most of the time? I would say yes. And I should have been. I would have been stupid not to be scared.”
Amir Marvasti, an associate professor of sociology at Penn State at Altoona, says: “Just the act of putting on a police uniform or a firefighter’s uniform is a heroic act. Even if they never actually do something that might make the news, the fact that they’re putting themselves in that position is heroic.”
Their job is to confront danger, an explicit agreement between the police and the public. In addition to that professional obligation, first responders say they are inspired by the deeper calling to be of service to their communities, so it’s difficult to separate the legal from the moral expectations.
“In the vast majority of cases, our expectations are fulfilled and the status is well earned and justified, as in the many officers who die in the line of duty,” Marvasti says. “However, we . . . are rightfully shocked and disappointed when our protectors refuse to perform their assigned duties.”
Emberlin doesn’t think Peterson froze. He thinks the sheriff’s deputy made a decision not to enter the school building: “I honestly think he was a guy at the end of his career who thought, ‘I made it this far and now I have to do something that might get me killed. And I’m not doing it.’ And that’s wrong.”
That makes Peterson, in Emberlin’s eyes, a coward. “He didn’t run towards the gunfire, and he should have. He’s a coward. Absolutely.”
Many of the Parkland families lobbied for Peterson's arrest and were thrilled when he was charged.
“It’s about damn time,” tweeted David Hogg, one of the students who survived the shooting and has become a gun control activist.
“This guy is a just a pathetic human being, and an embarrassment to every police officer who ever puts on a uniform,” Andrew Pollack told WPBF-TV shortly after the arrest. Pollack’s 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, was killed while Peterson stood outside.
But legal experts disagree about whether Peterson deserves to be in jail. There’s a difference between cowardice and criminal activity, explained Commissioner Swearingen: “I think what you found here is they’re examples of both.”
Peterson is charged with perjury for lying about the number of gunshots he heard after arriving at the scene, the count most likely to result in a conviction, according to legal experts. The majority of the charges, however, hinge on whether he can be considered a legal “caretaker” of the minors who were shot and if his inaction can be legally defined as child neglect.
Peterson’s lawyer, Joseph DiRuzzo, issued a statement saying law enforcement officers are specifically excluded from child welfare laws and called the charges “spurious.” Some law enforcement officers say the arrest sets a dangerous precedent, although judges have traditionally given police broad discretion when it comes to their official duties. Most have “qualified immunity” from lawsuits if they can prove their actions were “reasonable” — a broad and often subjective standard.
And there’s the question of whether police have a legal obligation to protect lives. In the 2005 Castle Rock v. Gonzales case, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that police do not have a constitutional duty to protect a person, even if they have reason to believe that person is in a potentially life-threatening situation.
It is unclear whether Peterson will face a jury trial, but Florida lawmakers are trying to strip him of his $8,702-a-month pension.
Regardless of his legal innocence or guilt, in the eyes of many he will always be a coward. Because he signed up to be a hero.