Criticism for ex-deputy who didn't engage school gunman 'unfounded,' lawyer says

President Donald Trump called the former deputy a "coward."

— -- Former Broward County sheriff's Deputy Scot Peterson -- whom President Donald Trump called a "coward" for not engaging the gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School -- has hired a lawyer to respond to "unfounded criticism of his actions" during the mass shooting.

"Let there be no mistake, Mr. Peterson wishes that he could have prevented the untimely passing of the 17 victims on that day, and his heart goes out to the families of the victims in their time of need," Peterson's attorney, Joseph DiRuzzo, said in a statement released today. "However, the allegations that Mr. Peterson was a coward and that his performance, under the circumstances, failed to meet the standards of police officers are patently untrue."

Peterson was the first law enforcement officer on scene at the Parkland, Florida, school when the shooting broke out on Feb. 14. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel announced Thursday that the decision was made to suspend Peterson after reviewing video from the shooting and taking statements from witnesses and Peterson himself, Israel said.

Peterson was armed and on campus during the shooting, Israel said. He said the deputy took cover outside the building where the shooting was occurring, but never went in. Israel added that viewing the footage "made me sick to my stomach."

“He should have went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer,” Israel said Thursday.

Since he met the requirements for retirement, Peterson opted to resign after he was told he was being suspended, Israel said.

But DiRuzzo accused Israel of a rush to judgment, saying the sheriff omitted key facts and that his statements about Peterson's actions were "at best, gross oversimplification of the events that transpired."

"Mr. Peterson is confident that his actions on that day were appropriate under the circumstances and that the video (together with the eyewitness testimony of those on scene) will exonerate him of any sub-par performance," DiRuzzo said in his statement.

Seventeen people were killed in the Valentine's Day massacre and more than a dozen were injured.

In response to the statement from Peterson and his attorney, the Broward County Sheriff's Office would only say, "The case is an active internal affairs investigation. In accordance with Florida law, we are prohibited from discussing any details until the case has concluded."

In his statement, DiRuzzo relayed what Peterson told him occurred about 2:30 p.m. on the day suspect Nikolas Cruz, 19, allegedly entered a building on the school campus and began the deadly rampage.

DiRuzzo said Peterson told him he initially responded to a call to investigate firecrackers, according to DiRuzzo's statement. The deputy said he responded with security specialist Kelvin Greenleaf and "ran north a couple of hundred yards to the 1200 Building," which has also been referred to as Building 12.

When he arrived outside the building, Peterson said "he heard gunshots but believed that those gunshots were originating from outside of any building on the school campus," according to DiRuzzo.

DiRuzzo said Peterson said the Broward County Sheriff's Office trains deputies responding to outdoor gunfire to "seek cover and assess the situation in order to communicate what one observes to other law enforcement."

According to DiRuzzo, the deputy said he "took up a tactical position between the 700-800 building corridor/corner," notified the sheriff's office dispatch of the gunfire, and initiated a "Code Red" lockdown of the school, according to DiRuzzo.

An officer from the Coral Springs Police Department was the first backup to arrive on campus, and Peterson informed the officer that he thought the shots were coming from somewhere outside the building, DiRuzzo said. Peterson claimed the Coral Springs officer, armed with a rifle, took up a tactical position behind a tree, DiRuzzo said.

"Radio transmissions indicated that there was a gunshot victim in the area of the football field, which served to confirm Mr. Peterson's belief that the shooter, or shooters, were outside," DiRuzzo said.

He said Peterson "had the presence of mind" to get school administrators to immediately start reviewing closed-circuit cameras to locate the gunman and obtain a description. The deputy also gave the arriving Coral Springs SWAT team his keys to enter the 1200 Building and provided the Broward County Sheriff's SWAT command with handwritten diagrams of the entire campus to evacuate students, DiRuzzo said.

DiRuzzo noted that Israel has said the investigation is ongoing and will not be "'rushed or asked to jump to conclusions.'"

"But this is exactly what Sheriff Israel did, he jumped to conclusions regarding Mr. Peterson's performance on February 14th even though Israel claimed that 'it is more important for us to wait and let the investigators get it right,'" DiRuzzo said.

Following Israel's Thursday news conference, Peterson came under an avalanche ridicule from politicians and parents of students at the school.

Trump called Peterson "a coward." "When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage or something happened. But he certainly did a poor job. There’s no question about that," Trump said Friday. "That’s a case where somebody was outside, they’re trained, they didn’t act properly or under pressure or they were a coward. It was a real shock to the police department."

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked today if Trump still believes Peterson should have been suspended in light the deputy's detailed description of the actions he took.

"The president feels in terms of his employment that that should be left up to local officials," Sanders said.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the police response to the massacre. He ordered the probe on the same day 74 Republican state lawmakers wrote him a letter asking him to suspend Israel, a Democrat, alleging, "incompetence and neglect of duty" for the failures of his deputies in the response to the shooting and for not digging deeper into numerous complaints about the alleged gunman prior to the shooting.

"Mr. Peterson is looking forward to cooperating with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, which we hope will detail the events of that tragic day and which we believe will ultimately clear Mr. Peterson's name," DiRuzzo said.