In the Parkland massacre, being a coward is not a crime

An investigation says school Resource Officer Scot Peterson didn't do his duty when a madman opened fire. But arresting him, Sue Carlton says, is missing the point.
Students walk past a memorial garden to the 17 slain in Parkland. [South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS]
Students walk past a memorial garden to the 17 slain in Parkland. [South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS]
Published June 7

The Coward of Broward, Scot Peterson has been called: a sworn law enforcement officer accused of standing by while people died.

A madman armed with an AR-15 rifle inside the South Florida high school where Peterson was the school resource officer fired approximately 140 times, murdering 17 students and staff members and wounding 17 more.

Despite his active-shooter training, then-Dep. Peterson did not go toward the gunfire. He did not confront the gunman. Instead, he took cover 75 feet away while the killer kept firing, during which time five students and a teacher were killed. And he's accused of later lying under oath when he said he heard only two or three shots.

He deserved to be fired. And he should not have been surprised to be condemned for everything from neglect of duty to moral responsibility, given the loss and grief in the town of Parkland.

But arresting the disgraced 56-year-old former deputy on charges of child neglect and culpable negligence this week is misguided. And missing the point.

And may be legally indefensible.

It should go without saying where the fault lies here: First and obviously, with Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old former student who posted pictures of guns and dead animals on social media, who had been expelled from school for his alarming behavior, who legally purchased his weapon and who, now 20, faces the death penalty.

We can also blame — and try to learn from — all the glaring red flags that were missed.

And share some of that blame with Florida legislators who have long done the bidding of the National Rifle Association to expand gun rights and fight off sensible gun control — and then, when the next massacre happens, offer up their "thoughts and prayers" platitudes.

But get everyone to focus on a deputy's actions that day — or, his deplorable inaction — and hey, nothing to see here when it comes to guns and how we regulate them.

Here's the thing: It is not a crime to be a coward. It is not against the law to hesitate, to not find it in yourself to act. It's difficult to mandate that people do the right thing.

Smart lawyers say pinning responsibility on Peterson could be a stretch. If the charges make it past a judge, maybe a jury will convict purely on the emotion and horror of what happened — and what might have been prevented — only to have it overturned on appeal.

And isn't civil court the appropriate place in our justice system for this?

With Peterson's arrest on 11 counts this week, a father who lost his daughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in the Valentine's Day bloodshed said the former deputy "needs to rot in hell." You could not blame him. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has headed the post-shooting task force, bluntly says Peterson heard gunshots, turned, ran "to a spot of personal safety and hiding" and then lied to cover himself. Fair enough.

But the real blame for what happened in Parkland lies with the man who fired that rifle, with the red flags that did not stop him and with those who do little to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. Not with the cop accused of not doing his job.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.

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