The former Broward County sheriff’s deputy who did not enter a Florida high school during a shooting rampage this month believes he acted appropriately because he thought the gunfire was outside, not inside, a building on the school’s campus, according to his lawyer.
The former deputy, Scot Peterson, was the school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when a gunman opened fire there on Feb. 14. Peterson’s actions have been sharply criticized since the shooting, with President Trump calling him a “coward” and Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel saying he was “disgusted” and “just demoralized” by Peterson’s actions.
Peterson’s lawyer, Joseph A. DiRuzzo III, pushed back at “unfounded criticism of his actions … and uncalled for attacks upon his character” in a lengthy statement Monday. Peterson said in the statement that when he got to the school building where the massacre was taking place, he “heard gunshots but believed that those gunshots were originating from outside of any of the buildings on the school campus.”
Rather than rushing inside, which is the generally accepted police response when facing a potential active shooter, Peterson acted properly in following his training for possible outdoor gunfire, his lawyer said, by seeking shelter and trying to assess what was happening at the Parkland, Fla., high school. The lawyer did not say when the officer realized the gunfire was coming from inside the building.
Peterson’s account on Monday adds to the uncertainty that has swirled around the law enforcement response to the deadly rampage at Stoneman Douglas, which killed 17 people, most of them teenagers. Israel, the sheriff, announced Feb. 22 that he had suspended Peterson after viewing surveillance video showing that the officer took up a position outside the school building and never went inside. After being suspended, Peterson filed his retirement paperwork and left the agency he joined in 1985.
Peterson should have gone in “and addressed the killer,” the sheriff said. “Killed the killer.”
DiRuzzo said Israel’s comments last week denouncing the deputy’s actions left “the clear implication that Mr. Peterson was responsible for failing to help the students” during one of the country’s deadliest school shootings.
“Let there be no mistake, Mr. Peterson wishes that he could have prevented the untimely passing of the seventeen victims on that day, and his heart goes out to the families of the victims in their time of need,” said DiRuzzo’s statement, the first comment offered on Peterson’s behalf since the officer was publicly identified last week. “However, the allegations that Mr. Peterson was a coward and that his performance, under the circumstances, failed to meet the standards of police officers are patently untrue.”
The Broward Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on Peterson’s account, saying his actions are part of an internal investigation and that state law prohibits the agency “from discussing any details until the case has concluded.”
Some students who survived the massacre have defended Peterson, saying they understood if he was afraid or felt outgunned.
But in an interview with WSVN, a local television station, a senior who was outside said he saw the deputy there “pointing his gun at nothing” while gunshots were audible in the building. Israel, speaking Sunday on CNN, said the student’s account was corroborated by witness statements and video from the scene. “And when I saw that, I was disgusted,” he said.
Peterson’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the student’s account.
Authorities have faced intensifying questions about their response to the shooting as well as how they handled tips and warnings about the suspected shooter’s potential for violence before the attack.
Officials had received a number of alarming warnings over the years, including at least four that linked former student Nikolas Cruz to a possible school shooting, but it appears the most alarming warnings prompted no investigation. The Broward Sheriff’s Office has said it is investigating how some of those calls were handled, while it has also begun looking into allegations that other deputies responding to the shooting also remained outside.
Israel, who has resisted calls that he resign over his office’s handling of both, has continued to assail Peterson’s actions, saying in a CNN interview Sunday that he should not be blamed for the deputy’s behavior.
“At this point, one person didn’t do what he should have done,” Israel said. “It’s horrific. The victims here, the families, I pray for them every night. It makes me sick to my stomach that we had a deputy that didn’t go in, because I know, if I was there, if I was on the wall, I would have been the first in, along with so many of the other people.”
DiRuzzo called Israel’s account of what Peterson did that day a “gross oversimplification” of what happened, and he also noted that Peterson had received “glowing annual performance reviews” and was named the school resource officer of the year in 2014. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has launched an investigation into the police response to the shooting at the request of Gov. Rick Scott (R), and DiRuzzo said he hopes that probe will “ultimately clear Mr. Peterson’s name.”
Trump has also continued to criticize the deputy for his behavior. On Monday, speaking to governors assembled at the White House, Trump said he believed he would have “run in, even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
This report, first published at 1:29 p.m., has been updated.