On Thursday, Feb. 22, eight days after Nikolas Cruz turned Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School into a killing field — reigniting the dormant debate over gun control and setting fire to the culture wars — the Broward County sheriff held a news conference and turned school deputy Scot Peterson into the face of failure.
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Critics of the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s anemic response to the school shooting called him a coward — the “Broward Coward.” Peterson spent the next three months holed up in his Boynton Beach duplex, warily surveilling visitors from behind a sheet.
But on Monday, Peterson broke his silence, though it turns out he hadn’t been silent after all. Peterson, 55, who infamously stood behind a concrete wall outside the Parkland school while at least some of the 17 students and adults were slaughtered inside, had granted intimate access to his home and life to a reporter with the Washington Post.
Peterson's words seemed only to stoke the fury of the parents of students who died on Feb. 14 at Stoneman Douglas.
The interview published Monday — to be followed by taped segments on NBC's Today show Tuesday and Wednesday — is a devastating account of the state’s worst school shooting and its aftermath from the lawman who is perhaps most associated with it. “It’s haunting,” Peterson tells the Post. “I’ve cut that day up a thousand ways with a million different what-if scenarios, but the bottom line is I was there to protect, and I lost 17.”
In the end, Peterson concluded there was little or nothing more he could have done to save the lives of students whom, he says, affectionately called him “Dep.”
“I’m tired of him trying to paint himself as the victim,” Fred Guttenberg, the father of 14-year-old Jaime Guttenberg, told the Miami Herald. “He is not a victim. He created victims. He keeps referring to them as his kids. They are not your kids, Scot Peterson! You let them die!”
“He keeps mentioning the third floor. If he had done his job, this killing wouldn’t have made it to the third floor. Those people who lost their lives, including my daughter, are victims of his inability to do his job; victims of his failure.”
Guttenberg added: “This interview makes him even more pathetic than he already was. You failed me and my daughter. If you are truly sorry, I challenge you to face me.”
Andrew Pollack, who lost his 18-year-old daughter, Meadow Pollack, was scornful of Peterson’s version of events in the Post story, which quoted him saying: “I couldn’t get [Cruz]. It was my job, and I didn’t find him.”
Pollack: “How could he find him if he’s hiding behind a wall?”
“I think the whole country knows he didn’t do his job and this interview was his way of him trying to live with it,” said Pollack, who has since the shooting become a national school safety activist. “He’s just a liar. It’s all on tape.”
Pollack filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Peterson and Cruz in April, telling the Herald that Peterson was his “main target."
"He could have stopped it. Could have saved my kid,” Pollack said. “Nobody should be able to not do their job, receive a pension and ride off into the sunset."
As part of his severance with BSO, Peterson will receive an annual pension in excess of $100,000.
Max Schachter, who lost his 14-year-old son, Alex, told the Miami Herald he doesn't "really care to hear that [Peterson] is having a difficult time.
"I don't understand how he can come out and say that he did do his job. He did nothing. He stood outside. He knew the guy was inside killing our kids. It's all crap," Schachter said.
"He actually caused more deaths because he told officers not to go in. He should be prosecuted."
One day after Douglas students graduated — and were surprised to see late-night comic Jimmy Fallon on stage — several of the Parkland students-turned-activists held a news conference to announce they were repurposing their anti-gun march into a voter registration drive. Called “March for Our Lives: Road to Change,” the initiative will include a two-month tour designed to spur turnout for the November midterm elections.
Several Douglas students at the event said they had not yet read the interview. Some said they planned to. A Douglas rising senior, Morgan Williams, called the former deputy an "[expletive] coward" on Twitter, and said she didn't "care what that article says."
"He was scared? So was I and everyone else inside that building. While I had to run across my classroom and [hide] from the shooter, he stood outside and did nothing. He gets absolutely no sympathy from me," Williams wrote on Twitter.
Some wrote on Twitter that the interview humanized the deputy and allowed him to explain for the first time his actions that day. But parents of the victims were not comforted.
April Schentrup, the mother of slain student Carmen Schentrup, 16, told a reporter at the voter registration event that she had not yet read the interview, but was told about it early Monday. “There’s just too many failures that we cannot accept anymore,” she said.
“I can just say that my kid is no longer here,” April Schentrup said. “We understand human errors, but we don’t understand why our children are no longer here when other things could have been done, could’ve helped prevent this.”
Moments later, April Schentrup took to Twitter: “If you really wanted to ‘find’ the shooter, then you should have gone in the bldg and towards the sound of gunshots,” she wrote. “We LOST OUR kids and loved ones!”
Carmen's father, Philip Schentrup, called Peterson "a coward and a liar."
"He is attempting to create a narrative about him as a victim instead of the truth," he said. "He heard the gunfire, and he knew what it was.... His training wasn’t to clear the area, it was to immediately engage the shooter and stop the killing. He must live with himself and the truth that 17 people were murdered as he stood around and did nothing.”
One of the most outspoken parents said he had little interest in what Peterson had to say.
Jeff Kasky, whose son Cameron helped organize the March for Our Lives protest and has become a ubiquitous gun control advocate after he survived the attack, said he’s only interested in looking forward to stanching the country’s assault gun epidemic — and not backward to affix blame.
“I couldn’t care less about Scot Peterson,” he said. “Whatever happened, happened in the past.”
“I can understand why people are interested in the story,” Kasky said. “But I am still laser-focused on our political action committee, and getting the NRA and dirty money out of politics.” On May 18, Kasky registered Families vs Assault Rifles PAC, Inc. as the non-profit arm of student activists’ efforts to restrict access to weapons such as the AR 15, which Cruz wielded when he entered Douglas.
“For myself, as a 20-year law enforcement officer, no operation is ever perfect. Every operation can be reviewed in hindsight, as BSO is doing, and we can learn from it,” said Kasky, who is a reserve officer in addition to practicing law.
Speaking while Christian music and the Fox News Channel played in the background, Peterson ruminated on opportunities lost and actions and inactions second-guessed. “What more could he possibly have done?” the story asked, paraphrasing Peterson’s palpable anguish. “Why had he failed to save so many lives in the exact scenario he had spent so much of his career training for — to find and kill an active shooter.”
“You’re a hero or a coward, and that’s it,” Peterson told his interviewer.
Peterson acknowledges the opprobrium with which his name now is associated. In the hours since the interview appeared, he’s been referred to on Twitter as “the disgraced former campus deputy,” the “scorned Parkland school cop,” a “dirty little coward” and “the coward cop.”
“How can they keep saying I did nothing,” the Post quotes Peterson as asking his girlfriend. Peterson had studied surveillance footage, the story says, and reviewed witness statements in an effort to understand what went wrong. “I’m getting on the radio to call in the shooting. I’m locking down the school. I’m clearing kids out of the courtyard. They have the video and the call logs. The evidence is sitting right there.”
Miami Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this story.