Jury selection is scheduled to begin Wednesday in the trial of the former school resource officer who remained outside a Parkland, Florida, high school as a gunman massacred 17 people, marking the rare prosecution of a law enforcement officer over his response to a mass shooting.
Scot Peterson – who retired from the Broward Sheriff’s Office as scrutiny of his conduct during the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mounted – has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges, including seven counts of felony child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury in connection with the shooting and statements he made afterward.
Peterson, 60, failed to follow his training by remaining behind a position of cover for at least 45 minutes, prosecutors say, while the 19-year-old shooter roamed the halls of the school’s 1200 building, killing 14 children and three staff members and leaving 17 others injured. After Peterson arrived outside that building, prosecutors allege, the gunman fired his weapon some 75 times, killing six people and injuring four.
Peterson was widely criticized after authorities revealed he had been armed but stayed outside, with then-President Donald Trump chiming in: “When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage or something happened, but he certainly did a poor job. There’s no question about that.”
Peterson has maintained he did nothing wrong. He has claimed, in part, he didn’t enter the 1200 building because he didn’t know where the gunfire was coming from – which other officers have testified he told them as they arrived – and could not have found and engaged the shooter in time to protect the victims. And his attorneys argue he was not properly equipped to confront a shooter with an AR-15. “There was no duty on the part of Peterson to protect the victims,” they wrote.
But prosecutors argue that if Peterson had spoken to fleeing students about the suspect’s description or entered the building, he would have seen the dead bodies and could have helped determine the shooter’s whereabouts.
“The defendant could have called for rescue, heard the shots on the second and third floors, and broadcasted the shooter’s location, all without engaging the shooter in a gunfight,” said prosecutors in a court filing.
The charges against Peterson are unusual, even in a nation that tallies dozens of school shootings every year – and the case has been called a first of its kind: While Peterson was a member of law enforcement, prosecutors charged him under a statute applying to caregivers, arguing that, as a school resource officer, he had a duty to protect students and teachers but exposed the victims – namely the children under 18 – to harm through his inaction.
“I don’t think it’s something that I’ve seen anywhere else in the country,” Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor, told CNN before Peterson’s trial, noting people are typically criminally charged for things they do, not things they don’t. And charging a law enforcement officer as a caretaker is, in his eyes, a “legal stretch, or at least uncharted territory.”
Still, the case highlights the broadly held expectation – among police and ordinary people – for how officers respond to an active shooter, even as other use of force issues are in debate nationwide. Just compare the anger elicited by the police response to last year’s school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, to the praise heaped on Nashville officers who quickly intervened in a school attack in March.
“I think most members of the public expect the police to respond aggressively and to make every effort to quickly identify and address an ongoing threat of lethal violence,” Stoughton told CNN. “That is also what police officers trained to do. And it is what … I think most agencies expect their officers to do.”
Indeed since the deadly 1999 attack at Columbine High School, few principles in law enforcement have become so simple to explain as an officer’s obligation during an attack, especially at a school, to move toward gunfire and end the threat.
Peterson and his attorneys have argued the caretaker statute doesn’t apply to him and he had no legal obligation to confront the shooter, court records show. Even so, he is “eager” for the trial to begin, he told reporters last week.
“I’m looking forward to it, to be honest with you. I want the truth to come out,” he said, CNN affiliate WFOR reported. He wants the people of Florida and the nation and the families of Parkland to know the “truth of what happened because unfortunately it’s never been told.”
“And if it’s going to be through a trial, so be it.”
The court is expected to whittle 500 potential jurors in Peterson’s case down to a panel of six, plus four alternates, per WFOR.
The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, pleaded guilty to 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole last year after a jury declined to unanimously recommend the death penalty – a decision that upset many of the victims’ families.
Still, the father of slain 14-year-old Gina Montalto has hope for justice in the Peterson case, he told CNN.
“It’s important to remember that my beautiful daughter Gina, her 13 schoolmates and the three staff members are the real victims,” Montalto said. “We should not portray or allow the defense team or the deputy who failed to act properly to portray himself as a victim. He was charged with keeping the students and staff safe, and he failed to do so.”
“Regardless of the outcome in the trial, I hope he’s haunted every day by the fact that his actions cost lives,” he said.
Relatives of Parkland victims praised the charges against Peterson when they were announced. Among them was the father of 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg – one of the students killed on the third floor – who told Peterson to “rot in hell.”
“You could have saved some of the 17. You could have saved my daughter,” Fred Guttenberg said. “You did not and then you lied about it and you deserve the misery coming your way.”
‘I think we’ve got shots fired’
Peterson was at the school’s administration building on February 14, 2018, when the shooter opened fire on the first floor of another building on the school’s campus – the 1200 building – according to a probable cause affidavit. A minute later at 2:22 p.m., the school’s fire alarm sounded, and Peterson was seen running from the administration building.
Then, he and another member of the security response team were picked up on a golf cart by a third, who drove them to the southeast corner of the 1200 building, where they arrived at 2:23, according to a timeline in the affidavit.
“I think we’ve got shots fired,” Peterson said over his sheriff’s office radio. “Possible shots fired. 1200 Building.”
Seconds later, as the gunman entered the second floor hallway, Peterson moved about 75 feet away and “positioned himself behind the wall of the stairwell on the northeast corner of the 700 Building,” the affidavit says, calling it a “position of cover.” He remained there for the duration of the shooting – more than 45 minutes – it says, even as more officers arrived.
Lt. Craig Cardinale of the Sunrise, Florida, Police Department arrived at the 1200 building and saw Peterson outside breathing heavily but not taking any action, according to the affidavit. Cardinale told investigators he saw Peterson “standing outside … pacing back and forth, going, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’” And when Cardinale asked Peterson what was going on, Peterson allegedly replied, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Minutes later, just before 2:28, the shooter left the 1200 building through its west doors and fled the school, the affidavit says, leaving a path of death and carnage on all three floors. It wasn’t until 3:11 that Peterson left his “position of cover.”
Peterson told investigators he heard only two or three gunshots upon arriving at the 1200 building and retreated to cover to get a good view of the building. He didn’t know where the shots were or where the shooter was, he said, according to the affidavit.
He echoed those claims in news interviews, the affidavit notes: Peterson told the Washington Post he believed he was trained to take cover, didn’t know the shooter’s location and, if he’d heard more gunshots, “might have known where to find” the shooter; in an interview with NBC’s “Today,” Peterson added he believed there was a sniper, saying, “I never believed there was even an active shooter inside.”
Peterson conceded he “didn’t get it right” but also wasn’t scared and did not freeze up, he told “Today.”
But Peterson, prosecutors allege, was well aware Cruz was inside the 1200 building, and many witnesses later claimed to have heard more than two or three gunshots, the affidavit notes. Additionally, the timeline included in the affidavit notes at least five times Peterson indicated in radio communications a focus on the 1200 building.
‘He messed up,’ expert says
Prosecutors charged Peterson with perjury for claiming to have heard just a few gunshots after arriving at the scene.
But it’s not clear whether he qualifies as a “caretaker” under the Florida statute – or, if he does, whether he was “under an affirmative duty, a legal obligation to do what he professionally absolutely should have done,” Stoughton said.
“I want to be very clear: He messed up,” said Stoughton, a former police officer. But there’s a distinction “between actions that are professionally inappropriate and actions that are criminal.”
The Columbine High School shooting reshaped the way police respond to active shooters: Since then, the widely accepted approach is for officers to immediately go toward the threat and neutralize it as fast as possible, given most mass shootings last just minutes.
That strategy was seen this year in Nashville, where officers swiftly entered a private school, found and killed an armed attacker who’d fatally wounded three 9-year-olds and three adults – earning them praise in the law enforcement community and beyond.
But things don’t always go as they should. One year ago, officers in Uvalde waited more than 70 minutes to enter elementary school classrooms where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers. A series of failures drew comparisons to Peterson’s response at Parkland, though officers in the Texas attack may never face criminal charges, experts have told CNN.
In Peterson’s case, prosecutors have argued the caregiver statute is broad and already has been used against teachers and kidnappers. Culpable negligence and child neglect charges would not generally apply to first responders, the Broward State Attorney’s Office has said, noting school resource officers have a “specific duty” to protect students and staff.
Deputy had discretion, defense unsuccessfully argued
Peterson’s attorneys unsuccessfully argued in 2019 his case should be dismissed, saying to charge him as a caregiver “did not withstand serious scrutiny” because he was operating as a law enforcement officer and so should have qualified immunity, which under Florida law would protect him from personal liability. In response, the state claimed qualified immunity applies only in civil cases.
Additionally, Peterson’s lawyers claimed the then-deputy had neither a legal duty nor a departmental requirement to confront the Parkland shooter, pointing to the sheriff’s office standard operating procedure for active shooter incidents, which, according to their motion to dismiss, said a deputy “may enter the area” of an attack if he or she has “real time intelligence.”
That language gave the then-deputy discretion over whether to enter the school, depending on the information he had available, Peterson’s attorneys argued.
On top of that, Peterson and his attorneys said that, with only a service pistol and no body armor, he was not properly equipped to confront the gunman, who wielded an AR-15 assault rifle. If he had, students and staff could have been “caught in the crossfire.” And finally, there wasn’t enough time for Peterson to enter the school and methodically clear each classroom on each floor before finding and confronting the shooter, they said.
The court, however, ruled against Peterson. The facts in dispute – including whether a school resource officer is considered a caregiver under the Florida statute – are decisions for the jury, the judge ruled.
Peterson has acknowledged he’s haunted by the day of the carnage, running through what-if scenarios in his mind, he told “Today.”
“Those were my kids in there,” he said. “I never would’ve sat there and let my kids get slaughtered.”