Scot Peterson, the former Broward Sheriff’s deputy responsible for protecting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, has been criminally charged for failing to confront a gunman who methodically shot and killed 17 students and staffers, state authorities said Tuesday.
In a highly unusual case, the retired 56-year-old deputy was arrested Tuesday on 11 charges — including child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury — for his role in the massacre that shocked the United States, galvanized gun-control activism and led to changes in Florida’s law.
Peterson, who has long insisted he acted properly and was not sure Nikolas Cruz was inside the 1200 building, faces nearly 100 years in prison if convicted. As a school resource officer trained to engage an active shooter immediately, Peterson “was responsible for the welfare and safety” of the students and “failed to make a reasonable effort” to protect them, according to an arrest warrant.
The criminal charges against Peterson stemmed from an investigation by the Florida Department of Law of Enforcement, tasked by former Gov. Rick Scott to examine the response of law enforcement to the worst school shooting in state history. Peterson was charged with seven counts of child neglect, six of them felonies, in connection with the harming of seven underage students at the school. He was also hit with three misdemeanor counts of culpable negligence and one misdemeanor count of perjury for lying during questioning by investigators.
His arrest caught many in the law enforcement community off guard. Filing of criminal charges against police officers for failing to act is virtually unheard of in Florida.
Peterson’s defense lawyer, Joseph DiRuzzo, ripped the “unprecedented” charges as legally misguided and “spurious.”
“The State’s actions appear to be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution against Mr. Peterson,” he said in a statement on Tuesday night.
But some state officials and parents of the dead students reacted with satisfaction that Peterson was jailed in the same facility as Cruz, the teenage gunman who launched the attack on Feb. 14, 2018.
“Every time [Peterson] knowingly lied, he caused further pain to the families,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime Guttenberg was among the students killed. “He could have saved some of the 17. He could have saved my daughter and he didn’t. He needs to rot in hell.”
State Sen. Lauren Book, a Plantation Democrat and member of the commission established to review police actions surrounding the massacre, said the charges were “one step closer to bringing ex-deputy Scot Peterson to justice for his deadly inaction.”
“Peterson chose to put his life before the lives of the children and educators he swore to serve and protect, even providing misinformation to others arriving on scene,” she said.
Pension at stake
Peterson, who retired from the force shortly after the shooting, was also fired by BSO, the department announced. He was booked into Broward County’s jail on Tuesday, and will be required to post a $102,000 bond, plus wear a GPS ankle monitor while he awaits trial.
“The FDLE investigation shows former Deputy Peterson did absolutely nothing to mitigate the MSD shooting that killed 17 children, teachers and staff and injured 17 others,” FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a statement. “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives.”
Some state lawmakers have wanted to punish Peterson all year. In February, Republicans in the House and Senate filed a law to strip the retired deputy of his pension, which according to the Sun-Sentinel is worth $104,000 a year. But state law protects public pensions — unless the retiree has been found guilty of a felony committed during the course of his job. That’s now a possibility.
As for Cruz, he is facing the death penalty for the mass shooting at Parkland. His defense lawyers have offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life prison sentence. Longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz, who announced Tuesday he will not seek re-election in 2020 in part to focus on trying Cruz, has pressed forward with execution as a possible punishment.
Peterson was singled out eight days after the shooting, when then-Sheriff Scott Israel announced the veteran deputy had resigned after detectives saw surveillance footage showing the school’s cop taking cover outside the 1200 building for some 10 minutes before other officers made entry, after Cruz had already fled.
Israel, who was later suspended by new Gov. Ron DeSantis, said Peterson’s conduct made him “sick to his stomach.” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the MSD commission that also singled out Peterson, called the deputy’s various stories of what happened “a bunch of lies.”
In investigating Peterson, FDLE agents interviewed hundreds of witnesses, including scores of fellow officers, command staff, school employees and students. They also reviewed hours upon hours of police radio transmissions and surveillance footage to establish a detailed time line of the officer’s movements that afternoon.
Agents even reviewed Peterson’s interviews with the media.
Lengthy arrest warrant
The case against Peterson was detailed in a 41-page heavily redacted arrest warrant. Many of the details have already been fleshed out publicly in witness statements, police reports and audio and video clips released in Cruz’s case, as well as findings by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission.
Among the findings cited by the arrest warrant:
▪ Peterson, a longtime schools resource officer, attended “many hours” of training on active shooters, including a four-hour session in April 2016. “Deputy Peterson knowingly and willing failed to act pursuant to his law enforcement training and sworn duties,” the warrant said.
▪ As Peterson took cover between two adjacent buildings, he “was aware” that Cruz was inside the building killing people. Agents interviewed numerous witnesses who said it was clear the gunfire was coming from inside. One Coral Springs officer told agents Peterson told him “the shooter is on the second or third floor” of the 1200 building.
▪ Peterson claimed to police that he only heard two or three shots upon arriving at the 1200 building. That was a lie, agents determined after an analysis of witnesses testimony, radio transmissions and body and surveillance videos.
The legal case
The decision to charge Peterson will be closely watched by South Florida’s law enforcement community.
Police officers are generally afforded wide latitude under Florida criminal law for their actions while on duty. One case that may come into play for Peterson’s defense: that of William Lozano, the Miami cop convicted of manslaughter for fatally shooting a man on a motorcycle in 1989.
A Miami appeals court overturned his conviction, ruling that jurors in the criminal case could not hear evidence that he violated his police training. The Miami cop’s former attorney, Roy Black, reviewed the arrest warrant and said Peterson can look to the Lozano case law.
“They want to hold him accountable based on his active shooter training. I don’t think that meets the Lozano test under Florida law,” said Black, who is not involved in the Peterson case. “The law has to apply to all people equally. They can’t single him out based on his training.”
Jeff Bell, the president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, said the union does not represent Peterson, but it was nonetheless troubled by the criminal charges.
“He didn’t do anything to intentionally put anyone in harm’s way,” Bell said. “Do I think these criminal charges will ultimately stick? No.”
DiRuzzo, Peterson’s defense lawyer, said the child neglect charges are wrong because the police officers cannot be considered “caregivers” for minor children.
“The actions taken today against my client should concern the American public and every public employee who, under the State’s misguided legal theory, could be criminally liable for actions taken as a ‘caregiver,’” DiRuzzo said.
The state’s decision to charge Peterson carries considerable political implications.
Gov. DeSantis has made accountability for the shooting a priority in Broward County, where in his first week in office he suspended Israel and replaced him with a former police sergeant who’d left the force in Coral Springs to run a mass-casualty incident training firm. And former governor Scott, now a U.S. Senator, called again Tuesday for accountability from the FBI, which blew an extremely detailed tip that Cruz was a potential school shooter.
Back in Broward, newly appointed Sheriff Gregory Tony touted the department’s improved training Tuesday. And the attorney for suspended Sheriff Israel, meanwhile, questioned how the state can accuse Peterson of neglecting his training while also citing poor training in its justification for the removal of Israel.
Israel is scheduled to make his case for reinstatement this month in Tallahassee before a specially appointed hearing officer. He also has a summer hearing before the Florida Senate. His attorney, Ben Kuehne, said the case against Peterson will become a part of the case over Israel’s suspension.
“The sheriff’s team takes no comfort in criminal charges being brought against a former deputy,” Kuehne said. “We wish him well in his legal proceedings.”
Sheriff Tony announced that he’d fired Peterson Tuesday, although the distinction is a technicality because Peterson resigned and retired last year.
While Peterson instantly became a figure of national scorn, other deputies have been harshly criticized as well for shirking their duties or being dishonest during police interviews about their response to the shooting.
Another deputy fired
Sgt. Brian Miller was also fired Tuesday by BSO, and accused of neglecting his duties as a sheriff’s deputy. He was among several deputies singled out by the MSD commission as having failed to properly respond to the shooting.
“He sat up on Holmberg Road for 10 minutes,” Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman, said during a hearing last year. “He heard gunshots and he didn’t move. He never got on the radio. ... He didn’t act.”
Bell, of the police union, said he expects Miller will get his job back at arbitration with BSO. “It’s a vindictive atmosphere at the agency,” Bell said. “They want to show the parents that they are tough and issuing discipline.”
Miami Herald reporters Colleen Wright and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.