The former Broward County sheriff’s deputy who did not pursue a gunman attacking a Parkland, Fla., high school last year was arrested Tuesday and charged with child neglect and negligence stemming from his actions that day.
Scot Peterson, 56, was arrested by the same agency he had worked for, charged with 11 counts and excoriated by law enforcement officials who decried his response to the massacre. The charges against Peterson include seven counts of child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury, according to court documents.
His actions have been widely pilloried since the Feb. 14, 2018, attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which ended with 17 students and staffers killed. Peterson, the lone armed officer on campus during the bloodshed, was recorded in security footage standing outside the school building where the carnage was taking place.
Peterson has said he did not know where the shots were coming from, telling The Washington Post last year, “It was all so fast. I couldn’t piece it all together.”
Peterson’s lawyer, Joseph A. DiRuzzo III, decried what he called the “unprecedented” decision to charge the former officer.
“We will vigorously defend against these spurious charges that lack basis in fact and law,” he said in a statement. DiRuzzo called the charges “nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution against Mr. Peterson” as no one else employed at the sheriff’s office or the school has faced charges.
Michael J. Satz, the state attorney for Broward County whose office is handling the death-penalty case against the former student charged in the Parkland attack, said his office will also be handling Peterson’s case. Peterson was booked into the same jail holding Nikolas Cruz, who confessed to the attack.
Peterson’s arrest followed an expansive investigation carried out by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which said it interviewed 184 witnesses and scoured “countless hours of video surveillance.”
The agency said this investigation concluded that the former deputy “refused to investigate the source of gunshots, retreated during the active shooting while victims were being shot and directed other law enforcement who arrived on scene to remain 500 feet away from the building.”
Records previously released by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office showed that while Peterson had said he was uncertain about where the shots were coming from, he quickly identified the building where it was taking place and ordered other officers to remain “at least 500 feet away.”
Peterson last had active-shooter training in April 2016, nearly two years before the Parkland attack, according to an arrest affidavit filed in Broward County circuit court. During training, deputies were told about the importance of urgently responding during such an attack, because “every time you hear a gunshot in an active shooter incident, you have to believe that is another victim being killed,” the affidavit states.
The attacker in Parkland fired about 140 rounds during the massacre, including shooting about 75 times after Peterson arrived near the building, according to the affidavit, signed by Keith B. Riddick, an inspector with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Peterson “knowingly and willingly failed to act . . . instead retreating to a position of increased personal safety,” Riddick wrote, going on to criticize the former deputy for not investigating the source of the gunshots or trying to “seek out, confront, or engage the shooter.”
Peterson is also accused in the affidavit of lying to investigators by saying under oath that he heard only two or three shots after arriving at the building.
“The FDLE investigation shows former Deputy Peterson did absolutely nothing to mitigate the MSD shooting that killed 17 children, teachers and staff and injured 17 others,” Rick Swearingen, commissioner of the department, said in a statement, using an acronym for the high school. “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives.”
Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, wrote in an email that the union had “several concerns” with the charges, describing the neglect and culpable negligence counts as “a stretch at best.” Bell said he lacked enough details to comment on the perjury charge but added that he doubted the case would lead to a conviction.
Bell said that “Peterson has never been viewed as a coward by this Union,” and added that he “reached his maximum potential that day and froze in a stairwell for 45 minutes.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the law enforcement response to the shooting amid criticism of how multiple officers responded, and is looking at elements beyond Peterson’s actions, a spokesman said Tuesday.
A statewide commission investigating the shooting released a report assailing both the school security and the law enforcement response. While Peterson’s actions have drawn widespread attention and derision, the public safety commission’s report described “several” Broward sheriff’s deputies taking their time to put on or remove gear “while shots were being fired,” which contradicts the widely accepted practice of rushing to confront active assailants.
According to Satz’s office, Peterson’s bond will be set at $102,000, and under the terms of his bond, he must wear a GPS monitor and surrender his passport. The charges he faces include second-degree felonies, third-degree felonies and first-degree misdemeanors, all of which potentially carry decades of time behind bars if he is convicted.
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony, who took over after his predecessor was suspended because of his response to the Parkland massacre, said Tuesday that Peterson and another former deputy, Sgt. Brian Miller, were officially fired by the office as part of an ongoing investigation into their behavior on the day of the attack.
“We cannot fulfill our commitment to always protect the security and safety of our Broward County community without doing a thorough assessment of what went wrong that day,” Tony said in a statement. “I am committed to addressing deficiencies and improving the Broward Sheriff’s Office.”
The statewide commission had criticized Miller, describing him in its report as failing to direct the law enforcement response when he arrived and then remaining in his car rather than pursuing the attacker.
Bell, the union leader, said the sheriff’s office announced Miller’s firing before telling the former deputy, describing that as “shameful.” Bell said the public safety commission had recommended only a demotion for Miller, and he pledged to continue “vigorously” defending the veteran officer.