Deputy Who Stayed Outside During Parkland School Shooting Faces Criminal Charges – The New York Times

Deputy Who Stayed Outside During Parkland School Shooting Faces Criminal Charges – The New York Times

MIAMI — A former sheriff’s deputy was arrested Tuesday in connection with the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the latest in a series of actions to hold police accountable for their response to an attack that left 17 people dead.

Scot Peterson, a former Broward County sheriff’s deputy who was the security officer assigned to the high school, faces 11 charges of neglect of a child, culpable negligence and perjury as a result of an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the authorities said. He was taken into custody and will be booked into the Broward County jail on a $102,000 bond.

“The F.D.L.E. investigation shows former Deputy Peterson did absolutely nothing to mitigate the M.S.D. shooting that killed 17 children, teachers and staff and injured 17 others,” the department’s commissioner, Rick Swearingen, said in a statement. “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives.”

Officials determined that Mr. Peterson, as well as Sgt. Brian Miller, “neglected their duties,” and they were both were terminated on Tuesday. Mr. Peterson was taken into custody after an administrative discipline hearing.

The criminal charges were an unusual instance of law enforcement officers being held criminally liable for failing to protect the public.

Civil lawsuits have become par for the course following mass shootings in the United States. Families of the victims and survivors themselves use litigation to hold institutions, both public and private, responsible for failing to keep people safe, as well as to push for policy changes or to collect compensation for emotional and physical trauma or death.

Those lawsuits have also taken aim at companies that manufacture guns and firearm components like bump stocks.

But experts say that criminally charging a law enforcement officer for allegedly being negligent in his response to a mass shooting is new ground.

“This is the first time I have seen somebody so charged like this,” said Clinton R. Van Zandt, a former profiler with the F.B.I. and an expert on mass shootings. “I think that every police officer, sheriff and F.B.I. agent understands that you have to go to the threat and stop it and that we are no longer going to wait for SWAT or set up perimeters.”

The Department of Law Enforcement said its inquiry showed that Mr. Peterson, 56, did not investigate the source of the gunshots, retreated during the shooting while victims were still under attack and directed other law enforcement officers to remain 500 feet away from the building.

The sweeping 15-month investigation included interviews with 184 witnesses, along with reviews of video surveillance, to piece together what officials acknowledged was a slow and chaotic law enforcement response.

In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended the Broward County sheriff, Scott Israel, citing neglect of duty and “incompetence.” He named as his replacement Gregory Tony, a former sergeant with the Coral Springs Police Department.

In his new position, Sheriff Tony oversaw an internal investigation of seven deputies at the department, including Mr. Peterson, and their handling of the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting.

“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,” Sheriff Tony said. “I am committed to addressing the deficiencies and improving the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Jeff Bell, the president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, expressed concern about the decision to charge Mr. Peterson, who was not a member of his organization. He argued that prosecutors had adopted a sweeping interpretation of the state’s negligence law that could put other officers at risk of charges in the future.

“I am worried that state attorneys and political officers can start to weaponize criminal charges against law enforcement if you don’t meet their threshold for what you do or should not do,” said Mr. Bell, who said he and others were still disappointed by Mr. Peterson’s response to the shooting.

“We knew that maybe the state attorney one day would try to stretch for criminal charges, but we never thought they would actually do it,” he said.

Mr. Bell said that the union would assist in defending Sergeant Miller, a member, in any proceedings to contest his termination.

The arrest caught Daniel Bishop, 17, by surprise. Mr. Bishop was a sophomore when the Parkland shooting took place and was among dozens of students who traveled to the State Capitol in the wake of the attack to demand legislators change state gun laws. He will be a senior in the fall.

He struggled with the idea of the guard’s arrest, he said. “It wasn’t his fault,” he said of the shooting. “Who am I to place blame on anyone besides the one person who should be held accountable?”

At the same, he said, if the authorities made a decision that the guard was legally culpable, he trusted their judgment. “If that’s what needed to be done, that’s what needs to be done,” he said. “We’re all just a little bit shocked that this went down.”

Rebecca Schneid, 17, a recent graduate of the high school, welcomed the news. “I’m happy that he is being held accountable for not doing what he was supposed to do,” she said. At the same time, she argued, his arrest should not distract the public from the fact that the gunman was the perpetrator. “I think that the one person that is responsible for what happened that day is the person that committed the crime,” she said.

Mr. Van Zandt said prosecutors appeared to be sending a message to the community that “we hear you are disappointed, and we will let the criminal justice system determine whether he made significant mistakes, whether perhaps he was a coward or not, or whether he acted properly with the information that he had.”

But, he contended, “it is going to be a challenge for prosecutors if the deputy stays with his story that his training did not teach him that, and that the circumstances did not dictate to him that his actions should have been to go in rather than facilitate the rescue of kids coming out and direct responding police officers coming in. In essence, he was directing traffic.”

Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter, Meadow, died in the attack, said he welcomed Mr. Peterson’s arrest.

“It’s about accountability, and there’s to be more in Broward County,” said Mr. Pollack, who previously filed a wrongful-death suit against Mr. Peterson. “We knew all along that this guy did something very terrible. He let my daughter die, and a lot of other victims in the school — teachers and children — and he didn’t do his job.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Pollack said he and his lawyer had turned over records — including a deposition of Mr. Peterson — in the civil case to law enforcement officials to consider during their criminal inquiry.

Mr. Pollack said he hoped Mr. Peterson would be convicted and sentenced to a lengthy prison term. “He brought his Bible with him to the deposition,” he said. “Let him bring his Bible with him to prison. He can read the whole thing a bunch of times.”

He paused and added, “I don’t care what they do to this guy. Let him live with it.”

The Parkland shooting has become woven into the fabric of Florida politics. Most national attention on the tragedy focused on the movement against gun violence launched by Stoneman Douglas High students. But parents of the dead — and the elected officials who joined forces with them — were a force in the halls of power in Fort Lauderdale and Tallahassee, relentlessly seeking answers and accountability, not least from the sheriff’s department.

The Parkland shooting occurred in the middle of the annual legislative session in 2018 and prompted immediate state action. It was followed by a midterm election in which candidates in races from governor to school board took on issues of gun control, school safety and policing head on. Long before he became governor, for example, Mr. DeSantis let it be known on the campaign trail that he considered Mr. Israel unfit as sheriff.

The pressure on Mr. DeSantis to hold officials responsible for the shooting did not end with Mr. Israel’s removal from office. Many families of the victims hoped the new governor would also remove the school’s superintendent, Robert W. Runcie. Mr. DeSantis decided against it, noting that Mr. Runcie was appointed by an elected school board. Mr. DeSantis did, however, call for a statewide grand jury based in Broward County to investigate school safety issues. The families of the victims flanked him during the announcement.

The state attorney who filed the charges on Tuesday, Michael J. Satz, announced earlier in the day that he would not seek re-election next year. First elected in 1976, Mr. Satz said skipping a campaign for a new term would allow him to focus on the coming death penalty trial of Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the Parkland killings.

Issues raised by the shooting are expected to continue to demand attention in Tallahassee, and not only on matters of gun policy and funding for safer schools. Also pending is how the state might compensate the victims’ families — an issue the families have already taken to court, claiming negligence by the school district and sheriff’s office.

That Parkland led to so much action has at times made the victims of another recent Florida shooting feel ignored by elected leaders: The families and friends of the victims of the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando have publicly lamented that the deaths of their loved ones did not prompt as swift a political response.


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