Cowardice criminalized? Cops say charges for failing to stop mass shooter set bad precedent

Police union troubled by arrest of Scot Peterson

Florida’s largest police union say the arrest of Scot Peterson, who failed to try and stop Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, is ‘highly concerning.’
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Florida’s largest police union say the arrest of Scot Peterson, who failed to try and stop Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, is ‘highly concerning.’

It’s hard to find a cop willing to publicly defend disgraced Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, who froze outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High as former student Nikolas Cruz mowed down students and staff with a high-powered rifle.

But one day after Peterson was arrested on 11 criminal charges for failing to confront the mass murderer last year, it was also hard to find many cops who supported prosecuting a police officer for not doing his job.

There was strong pushback from many in Florida’s law-enforcement community, who said the apparently unprecedented move may unfairly expose cops to jail time for decisions — or indecision — in high-pressure, dangerous situations. And, potentially, it could also apply to teachers who agree to tote guns in the classroom under a state school-safety policy approved by the Legislature this year.

Al Palacio, president of the Fraternal Order of Police 133 that represents the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department, called the charges against the former deputy, who retired after the massacre, “a political ploy.”

“I don’t think it’s right to judge a person’s entire life in 48 minutes,” he said. “We’re taking our focus off of Nikolas Cruz ... and we’re focusing on the guy that either should have or could have entered to save some lives.”

The head of Florida’s Police Benevolent Association, the largest law-enforcement union in the state, called Peterson’s inaction during the Parkland massacre “unconscionable” but was troubled by the arrest.

“Although our Association does not condone Deputy Peterson’s actions, the ramifications of charging a law enforcement officer with a criminal act as a caregiver is highly concerning and likely to have unintended and unprecedented consequences for good law enforcement officers in the future,” the PBA’s statewide president, John Kazanjian, said in a statement Wednesday.

Scot Peterso_fitted.jpeg
Scot Peterson Broward Sheriff's Office

Peterson’s arrest came as police officers across South Florida have faced increased arrest over their actions while on duty, although usually on allegations of excessive force. In Miami-Dade, several officers are awaiting trial for allegedly battering suspects; North Miami police officer Jonathon Aledda is currently on trial for culpable negligence and attempted manslaughter for shooting at an autistic man with a silver toy truck in his hand.

Legal experts believe the case against Peterson is novel, if legally shaky — prosecutors say he was considered a “caregiver” for the students, and had a duty to protect them from Cruz’s rampage. Peterson broke the law by “refusing to seek out, confront, or engage the shooter,” the arrest warrant said. He is also charged with perjury for allegedly lying about how many shots he heard once he arrived outside the 1200 building.

Cruz, a former Stoneman Douglas student, killed 17 people and wounded 17 more with a high-powered rifle on Feb. 14, 2018. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Peterson, a longtime schools resource officer, was vilified across the nation for taking cover outside the campus’ freshman building, as Cruz embarked on his rampage inside. Even President Donald Trump called him a coward.

Peterson retired shortly after the shooting. He was ordered fired on Tuesday, the same day the Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced the criminal charges. The FDLE denied that politics played a role in deciding to prosecute Peterson — but state leaders were briefed beforehand on the pending charges.

As FDLE Commissioner, Rick Swearingen reports to the Florida Cabinet, comprised of four statewide elected officials, including the governor. He contacted each member of the Cabinet before Peterson was arrested Tuesday to inform them of what was coming but didn’t seek out advice or involve them in the decision-making process, according to spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

“This is routine before a high-profile arrest or operation,” she said. “We did not request feedback from any office.”

FDLE informed DeSantis’ chief of staff, Shane Strum, about Peterson’s impending arrest, and Strum notified the governor. “The Governor was not consulted by FDLE,” said DeSantis’ chief spokeswoman, Helen Ferre.

Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz sits at the defense table during a status hearing at the Broward Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Amy Beth Bennett Sun Sentinel file photo

After being jailed Tuesday, Peterson, 56, was freed on bond Thursday but still faced charges that include child neglect, a felony, and misdemeanor culpable negligence. There was also a single count of misdemeanor perjury.

His defense lawyer, Joseph DiRuzzo, blasted the case as politically motivated in a motion to free Peterson on his own recognizance. “There is no conceivable explanation for how Peterson, a uniformed police officer serving as the school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, could qualify as a ‘caregiver’ ” under Florida law, wrote DiRuzzo..

The criminal charges against Peterson surprised many in South Florida’s criminal justice community, some of whom fear a chilling effect on officers assigned to schools, and even on teachers, who could all in theory be charged for not doing enough. That includes those who are participating in a new program to arm teachers in schools.

But Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who heads the post-Parkland commission charged with investigating police response to the shooting, called Peterson’s arrest a one-time “anomaly.”

“Anyone who signs up to do a job who has a responsibility for kids not doing it to the degree Peterson didn’t do it, whether you’re a [school] guardian, whether you’re a cop, or anybody else, I don’t see that happening again,” he said.

It’s not unusual for police officers to face administrative discipline, and even firing, for failing to act while on duty. And they are often sued, although officers are often considered immune from lawsuits for their on-duty actions under Florida law.

A federal civil judge has already ruled that the Broward Sheriff’s Office, including Peterson, did not have a constitutional duty to protect students under the law. The ruling came as part of a lawsuit filed by relatives of several slain students.

This Feb. 14, 2018, frame from security video provided by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office shows Deputy Scot Peterson, right, outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. He was severely criticized for not entering the school to confront shooter Nikolas Cruz. This image was from video released March 15. On Wednesday, Aug. 22, the Florida Supreme Court declined to intervene in a lawsuit, allowing more surveillance video would be released. Broward Sheriff's Office via AP

Under Florida criminal law, police officers are also given wide latitude while on duty. Appellate law also limits evidence of violations of police training to be heard during a criminal case, which could hamper the case against Peterson.

If Peterson is essentially being charged for cowardice in a highly visible case, police officers wondered, where does it end?

Could a school resource officer be charged for failing to intervene in a fight between students in a hallway? Could a patrol cop be charged for failing to get to a crime scene quickly enough? What if an officer fails to pull over a motorist who goes on to kill someone in a high-speed crash?

“The questions are truly endless. It’s not as simple as it seems on its face,” said former Miami-Dade PBA president John Rivera, who like many other officers interviewed, called Peterson’s actions inexcusable.

The charges could also have a chilling effect on keeping officers tasked with making split-second decisions.

“The negativity we have witnessed in recent years, whether rightfully earned or not, affects departments’ ability to hire and retain quality people who would be better suited than Scot Peterson,” Rivera said.

Another retired Miami-Dade officer, former assistant chief Charles Nanney, called Peterson a “coward” but said his arrest will harm schools in the end.

“It sets a bad precedent that may prevent some cops from volunteering with work in schools,” Nanney said.

The Broward Sheriff's Office released an unedited of surveillance video outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during and after confessed school shooter Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.

Miami Herald staff writers Colleen Wright and Emily Mahoney contributed to this report.

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