In a Florida courtroom, a legal debate began Wednesday on whether much-maligned former school resource officer Scot Peterson followed active shooter training when he did not immediately enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and confront the shooter who killed 17 people.
Peterson, 60, faces seven counts of felony child neglect, three counts of culpable negligence and one count of perjury in connection with the 2018 tragedy in Parkland, Fla. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Nikolas Cruz used a high-powered rifle to kill 14 students and three staff members before he was taken into custody. He was sentenced last November to 34 consecutive life terms in prison.
Peterson was a deputy with the Broward Sheriff’s Office for more than three decades and served as the school resource officer at MSD when the shooting happened – a position he’d held since 2009.
Broward Prosecutor Steven Klinger told the jury Peterson was under contract to function as the lead security person at the school, overseeing investigations, directing other officers and working to keep the campus safe.
“He is trained how to handle a situation where he is the only law enforcement person there to handle an active shooter,” Klinger said in court proceedings carried live on the Law & Crime Trial Network. “For the most part, in an active shooter situation you go toward the gunshots to find that shooter. And every shot could be a death.”
Ironically, just a month prior to the killings Klinger says the school district hosted a program for school administrators and teachers about hardening classrooms and how to respond to an active shooter situation, such as having safe places in their classrooms, keeping the doors closed and locked and covering the windows.
Klinger provided a lengthy timeline of what occurred when the shooting started, stating some students and faculty were able to huddle into safe areas in classrooms but others were unable to.
On that fateful day, Klinger said, Cruz took an Uber to the “1200 Building” on MSD’s campus, entered through the front doors with a rifle and a large amount of ammunition and started the shooting.
Peterson and a security specialist were standing outside “Building No. 1” about 100 yards away when information came over the school radio that something was happening at the 1200 building. They could not get a key for the cart they were to take over to the school. Shortly after, a school monitor pulled up in another cart and an alarm in the 1200 building begins to go off. The three of them drove toward the 1200 building.
Meanwhile, Klinger said, Cruz had shot and killed or wounded several people in classrooms. The percussive forces from the AR-15 dislodged dust from the ceiling tiles, which dirtied the air and caused the school’s motion-detection surveillance cameras to stop and start.
Cameras picked up the golf cart Peterson was riding on arriving at the scene and going to the southeast corner of the building, while Cruz is still on the first floor and had made it nearly all the way through the hallway. After shooting and killing one school monitor, Cruz goes into a stairwell toward the second floor and kills another monitor as he entered the building.
At that point, Klinger said, Peterson is about as far away as he can be from where the shooter was located at the time, as he yelled about shots being fired into his two radios. Cruz continued down an empty hallway, shooting into two different classrooms but not hitting anyone.
Klinger said Peterson stayed in an alcove near the building for more than 40 minutes and did not leave until the incident was over. Klinger said Peterson and the security specialist did not ask the five students who managed to flee the building what was happening.
The charges against Peterson are not connected to the deaths and injuries that occurred before Peterson arrived at the building. “Overall, it was an unspeakable, horrible day,” Klinger said.
But Peterson’s lawyer, Mark Eiglarsh, said his client was “thrown under the bus” by some other law enforcement officers and the public and was not a criminal.
“He didn't know where those shots were coming from precisely,” Eiglarsh told jurors. “We’ve got 22 witnesses under subpoena who will come in here and tell you that they, too, heard the same shots my client did and could not discern precisely where the shots were coming from.
“There was a pronounced echo and reverberation that the witnesses will talk about that left them hearing the same shots and wondering ‘Where is that coming from?’ (Scot) did everything he possibly could with the limited information that he had to help serve and protect everybody at that school. He was sacrificed.”
Cruz’s reign of terror in the building lasted 6 minutes, 36 seconds, but Peterson was there for 4 minutes and 15 seconds. “What is not in dispute is that when the shooter was on the first floor killing faculty and children, my client wasn't even on the scene yet,” Eiglarsh said.
He also noted six other officers at the scene didn’t enter the building, citing the same problem identifying where the shots were coming from due to reverberations and echoes.
“My client dedicated himself to law enforcement and serving this community 32 years,” Eiglarsh said. “We have this image of cops as they age as being in one of two categories, that idea that you've got some donut eating, lazy cop who's got one foot in retirement and can't wait to get out the door. That was not my client. Every single witness we've spoken to, and who will testify, will tell you he was an exemplary officer.”
The trial continues this week and could last several weeks.
John Dobberstein is managing editor of SecurityInfoWatch.com and oversees all content creation for the website. Dobberstein continues a 34-year decorated journalism career that has included stops at a variety of newspapers and B2B magazines.