Broward County

I’m no coward, says deputy who didn’t go inside Parkland school during massacre

Police and fire rescue vehicles converge on Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018.
Police and fire rescue vehicles converge on Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland after reports of an active shooter on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Sun Sentinel

Broward Deputy Scot Peterson says he is no coward.

The longtime campus cop at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High has been nationally ridiculed over the last week for his response to a mass shooter on campus — including by no less than President Donald Trump, who on Monday proclaimed that he likely would have charged in himself, even unarmed.

On Monday, Peterson pushed back against the critics in his first public statement, essentially arguing he did the right things in an uncertain, chaotic situation. “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,” according to the statement sent from Fort Lauderdale attorney Joseph DiRuzzo.

Last week, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel took the extraordinary step of singling out Peterson for failing to engage with confessed killer Nikolas Cruz as he gunned down 17 people — an accusation that has turned the one-time school resource officer of the year into a political scapegoat for a string of local and federal law enforcement errors revolving around Cruz.

Peterson said he did not storm the halls looking for the shooter because he initially “heard gunshots but believed those gunshots were originating from outside of the buildings on the school campus,” according to the statement. “BSO trains its officers that in the event of outdoor gunfire one is to seek cover and assess the situation in order to communicate what one observes with other law enforcement.”

He “took up a tactical position” between two other buildings next to Building 12, where Cruz spent six minutes unleashing gunfire with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.

Scot Peterson Broward County Schools

“Let there be no mistake,’’ DiRuzzo’s statement continued, “Mr. Peterson wishes that he could have prevented the untimely passing of the 17 victims on that day.”

The response from Peterson comes four days after Israel, in a stunning revelation, called a press conference to suggest that Peterson had failed in his duty to engage Cruz, who slipped away but was soon captured off school grounds. The sheriff said Peterson waited outside Building 12 for four full minutes while Cruz continued the slaughter inside. Officers are generally taught to engage active shooters immediately and not wait for backup.

“I am devastated. Sick to my stomach. He never went in,” Israel said during that news conference Thursday.

It wasn’t until the following week that Israel confirmed a report from Coral Springs officers that Peterson might not have been the only deputy waiting outside the building. BSO is also looking into the actions of three other deputies who arrived on the scene than took up positions behind their vehicles, guns drawn.

Though some Stoneman Douglas students have defended him, critics have piled on Peterson since, including the National Rifle Association, which has pointed at his inaction to push back against proposals to tighten gun laws. On Monday, even as he urged lawmakers to ban bump stocks and strengthen background checks, President Trump added to the chorus of criticism.

“You don’t know until you’re tested, but I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon,” Trump told a meeting of governors at the White House. The deputies, he said, “weren’t exactly Medal of Honor winners,” and “the way they performed was frankly disgusting.”

In the days since, Israel himself also has been blasted by critics, some of whom have called for his resignation. In addition to questions about the response to the shooting, the department has revealed that deputies also fielded multiple reports in recent years that Cruz might be a threat to schools.

DiRuzzo also ripped into Israel, saying he prematurely criticized Peterson while cautioning the public to wait for the results of a fast-moving investigation.

“Sheriff Israel’s statement is, at best, a gross oversimplification of the events that transpired,” the statement said

Hours before the press conference, BSO suspended the longtime deputy without pay, but he promptly retired. Peterson, a 32-year veteran, was named school resource officer of the year in Parkland four years ago.

While Israel had no problems speaking openly about Peterson last week, the department on Monday changed course.

“The case is an active internal affairs investigation. In accordance with Florida law, we are prohibited from discussing any details until the case has concluded,” according to a statement released by BSO.

BSO’s policy states that an officer “may” — not “must” — enter a building when an active shooter is attacking, meaning Peterson might not have violated any technical rules. Still, police tactical experts say, most active-shooter training calls for cops to identify the location of a gunman, whether inside or outside.

“If the gunfire is directed at you, it would make sense to try and seek a position of cover,” said Pete Blair, Executive Director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University. “If it wasn’t, we encourage officers to try and find the source of the gunfire.”

Jeff Bell, the president of BSO’s police union, said Monday that he didn’t think Peterson was a coward but does think the campus cop did not do enough that day.

“I’m sorry, after 100 to 120 rounds being fired, if he still can’t figure out where the gunfire is coming from, then there are issues,” said Bell, the head of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, which is not representing Peterson.

In the statement, Peterson claimed he took up a position outside Building 12 after rushing over to respond to a report of firecrackers. He and security specialist Kelvin Greenleaf ran out another building on the sprawling campus and ran “a couple hundred yards” north to Building 12.

Peterson said that he was the first BSO deputy to dispatch on the radio that shots were being fired. Neither Peterson nor his lawyer said whether the officer saw any students rushing from the building, or any alarming activity through the windows of Building 12 that would suggest an active shooter inside.

He also claimed that he told a first-arriving Coral Springs officer that he “thought that the shots were coming from outside.”

“Radio transmissions indicated that there was a gunshot victim in the area of the football field, which served to confirm Mr. Peterson’s belief that the shooter, or shooters, were outside,” according to the lawyer.

Peterson also said he “had the presence of mind” to have school officials review closed-circuit TV cameras “to locate the shooter,” while later giving Coral Springs SWAT officers the keys to the building so they could enter.

BSO’s response to the shooting has become a hotly debated political issue, with some Republican lawmakers calling for the ouster of the Democrat sheriff, who was first elected in 2012. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, at request of Gov. Rick Scott, is now reviewing if BSO and other police agencies responded correctly to what became the deadliest school shooting in state history.

The same day that Israel called out Peterson, the department also released a timeline of 23 interactions that BSO had with Cruz and his family over the past decade.

At least two of those interactions remain under investigation by BSO’s internal affairs unit, including a 2016 tip that Peterson was alerted that Cruz might pose a threat to a school. Peterson’s lawyer did not address whether Peterson properly investigated Cruz in that earlier case.

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