Scot Peterson, the only armed officer stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during last year’s shooting, was arrested Tuesday, charged with failing to protect the students.
Peterson’s actions — or lack thereof — quickly earned him the nickname “the Coward of Broward” County. But legal experts and officials are seriously pondering whether “cowardice” should be criminalized.
Lawyers and those in law enforcement, however, are surprised by the unprecedented case the state has chosen to pursue and skeptical about whether the prosecution will be successful.
The public has a false impression about the responsibility of law enforcement officers, especially during an active-shooter situation, according to Marquez Claxton, director of the Black Law Enforcement Alliance. A police officer’s duty is to protect and preserve human life, including his or her own life and colleagues’ lives, Claxton said. When everyone is running from danger, officers understand that they run to the danger and sometimes through the danger.
But, he also admitted, nothing is clear cut.
“There should be no expectation that there are disposable law enforcement officials who should immediately throw themselves in front of” extreme gunfire, said Claxton, who is also a retired New York City police detective. “Sometimes, jumping in the midst of flying bullets is not the most tactical move,” he added, even when you’re trained to protect and preserve.
Paul Martin, a defense attorney and former prosecutor, predicted the charges will have a chilling effect on people who wish to pursue law enforcement careers.
“There’s the possibility of being prosecuted for being too aggressive, and now, for not being aggressive enough. They’re d---ed if they do and d---ed if they don’t,” he said.
Martin has represented police officers for crimes they were accused of committing but said it’s “unheard of” for a police officer to be held criminally liable for failing to act.
“If that’s the case,” he added, “how many other police shootings, or where officers beat on or choke someone to death, where other officers are right there watching it happen. Very rarely do you see them charged for non-action, especially a year later.”
In February 2018, security-camera video shows the former Broward deputy idling outside for four minutes as gunman Nikolas Cruz slaughtered 17 people. Some law enforcement professionals have said Peterson shirked his duties and that, perhaps, Peterson was not cut out for the risky job in the first place.
But professional responsibility is not interchangeable with criminal liability.
Peterson’s perjury charge is clear-cut, Martin said. According to the affidavit, Peterson not only failed to go inside but then lied about how many gunshots he heard after arriving at the school.
The other charges — seven counts for felony neglect of a child and three for culpable negligence — are more dubious. Prosecuting Peterson for not doing more poses a host of nuanced issues, legal experts say.
Florida’s child neglect statute was not written to target officers, but to hold responsible children’s “caregivers,” which the state defines as “a parent, adult household member, or other person responsible for a child’s welfare.” Unlike police officers, caregivers do have a legal duty to respond and protect the children entrusted to them from harm.
Peterson’s attorney Joseph DiRuzzo argues his client was not a caretaker, legally speaking.
Prosecutors may also run into hurdles proving that Peterson demonstrated “gross recklessness” or “wanton disregard” for others.
Since the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, there has been a sea change in policing, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank that advises departments on best practices and policy.
Then, he said, police were trained to wait for backup and exercise a high degree of caution before acting. Today, 20 years later, police officers are being prosecuted for not rushing into an active-shooter situation faster.
According to a 2018 study of the sheriff’s department in Palm Beach County, which neighbors Parkland, the Forum found there was ambiguity about how officers should act during active-shooter situations — whether they should wait for backup or rush inside.
“The contrast of what the public expects of policing is quite extreme,” Wexler said.