It’s clear that the school resource officer who failed to act at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland should be held to account.
Scot Peterson has resigned from his job. He is being sued in several civil cases. But should he be held criminally liable as well? That appears to be a radical interpretation of a law that is normally not used against police officers.
Yet after about a 15-month investigation, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement charged Peterson with seven counts of child neglect and three counts of culpable negligence. Peterson was accused of perjury in connection with lying to investigators about shots being fired at the school on Feb. 14, 2018.
Police officers and others in the criminal justice system have great amounts of discretion; society generally gives them wide latitude in recognition that their job requires fast action under stressful conditions. In Peterson’s case, it required him to react immediately in a combat situation.
“There can be no excuse for his complete inaction and no question that his inaction cost lives,” said FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen in a statement regarding Peterson.
The 41-page affidavit notes that Peterson had been a school resource officer for the Broward County sheriff’s office for eight years. He had received a great deal of training. In fact, his first of several “active shooter” training sessions occurred in 2007.
According to the training videos quoted in the affidavit, the deputies are advised, “Every time you hear a gunshot in an active shooter incident, you have to believe that is another victim being killed.”
Because the shooter is seeking to inflict as much damage as quickly as possible, the officer is expected to quickly engage in order to (1) force the suspect to surrender, (2) force the suspect into a barricade so that a SWAT team can take over or (3) shoot the suspect or have the suspect kill himself.
There is some controversy over what Peterson heard and what he thought he heard. In any case, surveillance video showed him in an outside hallway between two buildings while the shootings were taking place inside the school.
Peterson has said he thought shooting was happening outside, that there was a sniper. Peterson’s lawyer said he was not legally responsible for caring for the children under the statute, and that no police officer has ever been prosecuted in such situations, reported The Associated Press. And Broward County’s policies stated that deputies “may” enter an active shooter area rather than being required to do so.
Few people know how they would react in such a pressure-filled situation. And this indicates the difficulty of expecting a lightly trained civilian or teacher to act properly in combat.
Therefore, the best solution is to allow a jury of Peterson’s peers to make the final decision.
A jury should decide whether Peterson should go to prison for his lack of response.
This editorial originally appeared in the (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union.