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Deputy who retreated during Parkland shooting is facing another stand-or-run choice

Published Oct. 5, 2018

The first time was life or death, and Scot Peterson had only moments to decide.

By most accounts, the former Broward County sheriff's deputy chose poorly. Upon hearing gunshots and reports of an intruder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Peterson retreated. He did not enter the building, he did not follow protocol, he did not save a single life.

He was, President Donald Trump declared publicly, a coward.

• • •

This time Peterson is facing a different kind of peril, and he's had weeks to prepare.

A fact-finding commission in the wake of the Parkland shooting has subpoenaed Peterson to appear before the group Wednesday in South Florida. Among the commission members are the fathers of two of the 17 people murdered at the school on that February day.

This time will Peterson have the courage to walk through the door?

• • •

This was not his preference, but it was his mandate. When he agreed to chair the Parkland Commission, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was looking more for answers than scapegoats.

All these months later, those answers may have produced a justifiable scapegoat.

Though Nikolas Cruz bears the ultimate responsibility for shooting 34 people, a fair amount of rage has been pointed in the direction of Peterson, who has since retired with a pension in excess of $100,000 annually. Having sifted through all the facts, Gualtieri does not disagree with the ire.

"The only right thing to do, the only reasonable thing, the only prudent thing, the only thing a responsible law enforcement officer would do, is enter that building and start laying down rounds,'' Gualtieri said. "There were already dead kids laying in that hallway, and instead of going inside and engaging the shooter, he runs.''

Peterson could not have prevented the massacre. He could not have saved most of those who were killed, and he might not have been able to save any of them. But the issue is he did not even try.

A time line put together by the Broward Sheriff's Office based on video feeds, witnesses and radio calls has determined Cruz spent just under seven minutes in the school building. The actual killing spree lasted just under four minutes.

An unarmed school security guard saw Cruz heading toward the building while carrying a rifle bag and immediately reported it on a school radio system that Peterson presumably heard. Within a minute, there were reports of shots fired.

Peterson hopped on a golf cart and headed toward the building in question. He got to the door Cruz had entered right about the time the 10th and 11th victims were killed on the first floor.

This was the moment where Peterson faltered.

Gualtieri says all the lessons learned in 20 years of school shootings, and all the training given to school resource officers, point to Peterson immediately going in the building. The job is not to tend to victims, and it is not, as Peterson did, to make radio calls having roads and buildings sealed off. Cops are taught that every round they hear is another person being killed.

But instead of going inside, Peterson retreated about 70 feet away between two other buildings. Cruz, meanwhile, walked up two flights of stairs where he killed six more and wounded a handful of others.

It gives Gualtieri neither pleasure nor satisfaction to point a finger at Peterson, but he said the facts are indisputable.

"There is no doubt in my mind he knew exactly what was going on and he decided not to do what he was trained to do,'' Gualtieri said. "It was inappropriate. It was appalling.

"Use whatever adjective you choose.''

Which brings us to three days of commission meetings this week.

Peterson is scheduled to testify at 8:30 Wednesday morning, though his attorney declined to say whether he would appear, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.

If Peterson does not show, the commission has the authority to request a judge to compel him to testify. But there's another wrinkle. Gov. Rick Scott ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct a separate inquiry into the law enforcement response. Peterson might reasonably argue that testifying in front of the commission could open him up to criminal charges.

Gualtieri is not swayed by that argument.

He points out that Peterson agreed to do interviews with the Washington Post and the Today show, in which he ruefully took responsibility without really acknowledging any mistakes.

"You're the only one on campus with a gun, you're the only one who can stop it,'' Gualtieri said. "What he did was just not right. It's not what you signed up to do.''

All these months later, Peterson is again faced with a harrowing choice:

Show up or flee.


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