U.S.A. — Scot Peterson, the retired school resource officer for Majorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is on trial for seven counts of child neglect (felonies), three counts of culpable negligence (misdemeanors), and one count of perjury.
On the afternoon of February 14, 2018, a 19-year-old with a long history of anti-social behavior murdered 17 people and injured 17 others in Parkland, Florida at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. Parkland is located in Broward County. The school resource officer at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School was Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson.
The 19-year-old murderer had been seen entering campus through an unlocked gate at 2:19 p.m., carrying what was described as a “rifle bag.” Through a series of policies designed to keep crime and discipline statistics low, several opportunities were missed to stop the young man before he started killing. A detailed account of the policies in place and how they failed to stop the murders can be read in “Why Meadow Died” by Andrew Pollack and Max Eden.
Police officers do not have a legal duty to enforce the law in any particular incident, even if they have been contacted and informed a crime is taking place. A police officer may be fired from his job. Police officers are almost always immune from lawsuits for doing nothing. They are almost never criminally charged. Richard W. Stevens wrote an excellent little book detailing this reality titled Dial 911 and Die, in 1999. The facts in the book are essentially unchanged. It is nearly impossible to win a lawsuit against a police officer for failing to act. Criminal charges have been extremely rare.
Former Deputy Scot Peterson is being charged for what he did not do. About four minutes after the murderer entered the campus, Peterson reported possible gunshots in building 1200. He did not run to the sound of the gunfire. He did not confront the killer while the mass murder was in process. He did not fire his sidearm to potentially make the killer wonder if the killer was under fire. He ran to a position of cover and stayed there until the situation was resolved.
Deputy Peterson was 55 years old and eligible for retirement. As criticism of his actions became louder during the investigation of the mass murder, he retired before he could be fired. He was fired retroactively. In his last year, Peterson was paid $101,879.03, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The 55-year-old Peterson, a Broward deputy for 32 years, was paid $101,879.03 last year — $75,673.72 in base salary plus overtime and other compensation, according to sheriff’s office records. Until the shooting, he was considered a trusted school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas, according to annual reviews of his performance.
His pension started at $8,702.35 a month, which would be $104,428.20 for 12 months. If found guilty of a felony, it is possible he could lose his pension and spend time in jail or prison. He would not lose his pension if convicted of a misdemeanor.
The state’s case against Deputy Peterson rests on a theory of a school resource officer having a special duty to protect the school children because he was assigned to the school. The seven felony counts of child neglect, four for children who were killed and three for children who were severely wounded, are based on this theory. The three misdemeanor counts of culpable negligence for two adults who were killed and one 19-year-old adult student (Meadow Pollack) who was killed are based on the theory. Culpable negligence has a higher standard of proof than child neglect. The eleventh count is for perjury. It is claimed Peterson made a false statement under oath during the investigation of the mass murder. From state.fl.us:
(e) “Neglect of a child” means:
- A caregiver’s failure or omission to provide a child with the care, supervision, and services necessary to maintain the child’s physical and mental health, including, but not limited to, food, nutrition, clothing, shelter, supervision, medicine, and medical services that a prudent person would consider essential for the well-being of the child; or
- A caregiver’s failure to make a reasonable effort to protect a child from abuse, neglect, or exploitation by another person.
The trial will go before a six-person jury. The jury is being chosen at this time. Most of the charges will depend on whether the jury can be convinced Peterson was a “caregiver” as well as a law enforcement officer.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office manual at the time is reported as saying an officer “may” directly and immediately respond to an active shooter. It is much different from saying an officer “shall” immediately respond. A sheriff’s office manual is not a set of legal statutes. It is difficult to predict what a jury will do. It is notoriously difficult to predict what people will do when confronted by a deadly threat. People who rush to danger are called heroes. Except for the military, there are no laws against cowardice or bad judgment in the face of a deadly threat. A six-person jury is easier to sway than a 12-person jury. This link has a discussion of what the right to a jury means.
Peterson says he did not know what was happening but thought there might be a sniper. From local10.com:
Peterson has defended his actions, saying he did not know where the gunman was and he thought a sniper may have been targeting the building.
In the law, the charge most likely to “stick” is the misdemeanor charge for perjury. Much depends on what was recorded and who claims to have heard what. The information will come out during the trial.
In the last few decades the United States has seen criminal charges filed against officers who were following procedure, but who were seen by the media as deserving of charges. These include the defendants in the Rodney King case and the George Floyd case. The media portrayal of Deputy Peterson is mixed. Many will say Deputy Peterson deserves all the pain now being inflicted on him. It is punishment by process. This correspondent believes if Deputy Peterson had intervened quickly, he could have saved lives. Looking backward is clearer than evaluation of the scene in real time. Proving Deputy Scot Peterson committed a crime, beyond a reasonable doubt, may be difficult.
About Dean Weingarten:
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.