Scot Peterson was negligent at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. But was he criminally negligent? That is a dangerous legal stretch.
Ten of the 11 charges filed Tuesday against the former Broward County Sheriff’s deputy presume Peterson could have saved lives if he had entered the 1200 Building as soon as he heard shots. It’s presumed that he could have prevented the shooter from reaching the third floor, where he shot 10 people, killing six, after shooting 24 people on the first floor, killing 11.
Normally, law enforcement officers face criminal charges for actions they took, not actions they did not take. That distinction underscores the unique and potentially problematic nature of the charges against Peterson.
Along with one count of perjury, Peterson stands charged with seven counts of child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence. The charges seem more suited for parents or caregivers with direct responsibility for a child’s welfare. They are subjective. And to file them against a law enforcement officer plows risky new ground.
The charges are surprising, too, in light of a federal judge’s December ruling that the Sheriff’s Office and Broward schools had no legal duty to protect students during the shooting.
If cops can’t be held civilly liable for failing to do their duty, as case law holds and U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom agreed, how can one be held criminally liable?
Let’s first acknowledge the obvious. Peterson deserves the enmity of the victims’ families, who applaud the charges. He deserves public scorn. He deserved to lose his job. When needed most by the students and teachers of the school he patrolled, Peterson froze, putting himself first.
His was only one of many failures that led to this tragedy.
Begin with the Broward County School District’s failure to give the shooter the support he needed on transferring to Stoneman Douglas and to assess the threat he later posed. Neither did the district have a policy for calling a Code Red. By the time school officials did so on Feb. 14, Nikolas Cruz was approaching the third floor and had been shooting for more than three minutes.
Add the failure of the FBI to promptly respond to a tip that the shooter was a public threat. The call got lost in the system. The bureau has yet to provide a satisfactory public accounting of lessons learned and changes made.
Finally, how was an unstable 19-year-old able to buy the military-style weapon he used to kill 17 and wound 17 others? The weapon was designed for soldiers to quickly kill as many enemy soldiers as possible. The Legislature since raised the age for firearms purchases to 21, but did nothing about restricting military-style weapons.
Legislators did create the “guardians” program that allows school staff members — and now teachers — to carry weapons. But what does the prosecution of Peterson mean for armed teachers? By agreeing to carry weapons, don’t they assume the same responsibility as school resource officers? If they fail to pursue the shooter, will they be subject to criminal charges? And will sworn officers now try to avoid assignment to a school?
The best trained cops — and soldiers, too — never know what will happen when they first hear hostile fire.
The arrest warrant arrest is damning. Among other things, it notes that Peterson stayed 75 feet away from the 1200 Building “during the entire incident” in “a position of increased personal safety.” From a window, a student saw him “standing on the side of the building with his gun drawn, not really doing anything.” According to the warrant, the shooter fired 75 of his 140 rounds after Peterson reached the southeast side of the building and failed to enter.
Yet one can’t separate the politics from this case. DeSantis, a Republican, likely has gained votes in Florida’s most heavily Democratic county with his focus on the shooting. Andrew Pollack, whose daughter died that fateful day, told CNN on Wednesday that the governor deserves credit for the charges against Peterson.
Injecting politics into the criminal justice system, however, is wrong.
The perjury charge is another matter, though. If Peterson lied to state investigators about how many shots he heard, he should lose his pension of nearly $9,000 a month.
Such an outcome likely would not satisfy Peterson’s many critics. But it would remind the public that more than one person carries blame for the Stoneman Douglas shooting.