Decision to charge Parkland school resource officer Scot Peterson for inaction likely unprecedented: Experts

“Basically, they’re charging him with being a coward," one expert said.

June 6, 2019, 5:24 PM

Scot Peterson, the Parkland, Florida, school resource officer who failed to confront a shooter who killed 17 last February, has been branded a “coward” by everyone from victims' family members to President Donald Trump. But will his inaction that day also make him a felon?

This week, Florida prosecutors answered that question this week in the affirmative, and charged the former Broward County sheriff's deputy with neglect of a child, culpable negligence and perjury.

Legal experts say the move is unprecedented, and that the case will be closely watched amid calls to arm teachers and other school personnel as a way to prevent future school shootings.

“I can’t think of a case where someone has been charged with not going into harm’s way,” said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Basically, they’re charging him with being a coward."

In similar cases, like those involving day care personnel, a person might be made to pay money to the affected families, but it is “incredibly rare” for prosecutors to seek jail time, Levenson said.

Darren Hutchinson, a professor of the University of Florida's Levin College of Law, said that the only precedent for officers being charged for inaction is in cases where they fail to perform their "clearly defined legal duty," such as attending to a person's urgent medical needs.

"What they’re doing in Florida is try to apply general laws regarding child neglect -- laws that keep people from doing reckless things that cause injury -- they’re applying those to police practice," Hutchinson said.

Surveillance video and police radio transmissions showed that as the alleged teenage gunman, Nikolas Cruz, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, rampaged through Building 12, which was full of freshmen, Peterson remained outside for 27 minutes. Instead of entering the school to confront the gunman, he retreated to a safe area, and then advised first responders over the radio to maintain their distance. Prosecutors say that he made a false statement, claiming that he did not hear gunfire.

An internal probe by the Broward County Sheriff's Office found that Peterson, who was assigned to the high school as a school resource officer, “did absolutely nothing to mitigate” the shooting, according to a statement released by the agency.

Peterson's lawyer, Joseph DiRuzzo, said at the time that his client's actions were "appropriate" and said he would ultimately be exonerated based on the video evidence. DiRuzzo said Peterson took up a "tactical position" in response to what he believed was outdoor gunfire, notified the sheriff's dispatch and initiated a "Code Red" lockdown.

In the wake of the shooting, the Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Commission suggested that a policy implemented by former Sheriff Steve Israel, who helmed the department at the time, may have been a factor in the incident. Instead of mandating that officers confront active shooters, it said they "may" do so.

Israel told the commission he wanted to avoid sending officers on "suicide missions," according to the Associated Press.

"By absolutely no stretch of the imagination do we condone the actions, or inaction, of Deputy Scot Peterson on February 14, 2018," Rod Skirvin, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, which includes Parkland, told ABC News in an interview Thursday. "That being said, we feel the ramifications of charging a law enforcement officer with a criminal act as a caregiver is highly concerning to us."

Skirvin said the idea that an officer like Peterson could be criminally charged would lead to "massive confusion on the interpretation of the law." He noted that in the wake of the Parkland shooting, Florida police are now trained to prepare to "kill or be killed" as they enter an active-shooter situation at a school.

This week, immediately after the criminal complaint was filed against him, Peterson, 56, was terminated from his position, which he had held for 30 years.

Peterson's lawyer, DiRuzzo, said in a statement that his client was being made a scapegoat.

"The State’s actions appear to be nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at politically motivated retribution against Mr. Peterson, as no other individual employed at the Broward Sheriff’s Office or Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been criminally charged," DiRuzzo said.

Peterson appeared in court Thursday and a judge reduced his bond. He was released and has not yet entered a plea.

The news this week that Peterson had been charged was mostly applauded by the Parkland community, which largely repeated the view of him that they have offered over the past year.

"He was a coward that day," Manuel Oliver, whose 17-year-old son, Joaquin, was killed in the massacre, told ABC News. "He was there to save students, teachers. He did nothing. Now he needs to pay for his mistake and I'm glad this is happening now."

Levenson said that the case would be closely watched, as the state legislatures and the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have considered policies that would encourage more school personnel, including teachers, to be armed.

“It may have mixed consequences,” she said of the criminal charges. “It might be harder to recruit people.”

But more than that, it is not yet clear that a jury will go along with it.

“I think people are angry that their children weren’t protected,” Levenson said. “In a courtroom, where that anger is going to be tempered, what will it look like then?”