FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA—Former Florida sheriff’s deputy Scot Peterson, 56, appeared in court on June 5, on 11 charges, including negligence and child neglect for not confronting the gunman in last year’s Parkland school massacre that left 17 people dead.
Bail was set at $102,000 for Peterson, who was fired Tuesday as a deputy though he had already retired. He said nothing at the hearing on Wednesday and did not enter a plea.
In court papers, prosecutors said five people were killed and four others wounded after Peterson took up his position, gun drawn, but did not go inside. Nikolas Cruz, 20, faces the death penalty if convicted in the Valentine’s Day bloodshed.
Can Broward County prosecutors prove Peterson’s hesitation to act amounts to a crime?
Instances in which law enforcement officers are accused of mishandling a situation are often dealt with, although not with criminal charges but with lawsuits seeking damages. Several have already been filed against Peterson.
The negligence charge brought by prosecutors accuses Peterson of “reckless indifference” or “careless disregard” for others. Child neglect involves a failure to protect someone under 18 from “abuse, neglect, or exploitation.”
Peterson’s lawyer, Joseph DiRuzzo, said the charges should be dismissed because Peterson did not legally have a duty to care for the students, as would be the case for someone dealing directly with children, such as a nurse or daycare staffer.
DiRuzzo also pointed out that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office policy at the time stated that deputies “may enter the area” to deal with an active shooter—they were not required to do so.
Investigators, prosecutors and victims’ family members tell a different story. Prosecutors noted in court papers that Peterson was trained to confront an armed assailant and, as the school’s resource officer, was the only armed person on campus who could have limited or stopped the carnage in a timely way.
“He could have and would have saved lives. So he has to deal with that for the rest of his life,” said Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter Alyssa was killed.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen, whose agency conducted a 14-month investigation into Peterson’s conduct, including interviews with 184 witnesses and a review of many hours of surveillance video, said: “There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives.”
Lori Alhadeff, mother of 14-year-old Parkland shooting victim Alyssa Alhadeff: “[Scot Peterson] was a coward, and he froze outside the building instead of going in and engaging the threat.” https://t.co/iygoVh58qw pic.twitter.com/yWrMcrqGX5
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) June 5, 2019
In news interviews, Peterson has defended his actions as justified amid the chaos that day.
“I believed there was a sniper. So in my mind, I’m thinking to myself there’s possibly, maybe, somebody up there shooting out. But I didn’t think they were shooting at kids,” Peterson said on NBC’s Today show. “I thought they were shooting out at the building. Outside.”
Peterson faces a maximum sentence of nearly 100 years in prison if convicted on all counts—a combination of felonies and misdemeanors. Other than Cruz, who is set to go to trial early next year, he is the only person charged with a crime.
“There has only ever been one person to blame—Nikolas Cruz,” Peterson’s lawyer said.
By Curt Anderson