I was very happy to see Scot Peterson charged with crimes over his failure to act during the Parkland School Shooting.
Now I’m not so sure.
To recap: Scot Peterson was a Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy assigned to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. On 14 February 2018, a nineteen-year-old former student opened fire at the school, killing 17 and wounding 17. Subsequent investigation revealed that Mr. Peterson did not take any action during the shooting other than to take cover outside a building. He also instructed responding law enforcement officers to not approach the building. Eight days later, Mr. Peterson was suspended by BCSO and immediately retired. Because he retired, he was able to receive his pension, which created quite an uproar.
There are plenty of active and former law enforcement officers—and I include myself here—who think Mr. Peterson demonstrated clear cowardice the day of the shooting, and want him to be punished in some other tangible way besides being known as the “Coward of Broward” for the rest of his life.
But is this the right way to do it?
Mr. Peterson has been charged with 11 counts of child neglect under FS 827.03(1)(e)1, 827.03(1)(e)2, and 827.03(2)(b). He’s also charged with 3 counts of culpable negligence under FS 784.05(1), and one count of perjury when not in an official proceeding under 837.012. The warrant is available on Scribd. The charges seem to be focused on the minors who were killed and wounded that day; several students were 18.
The child neglect charges say that Mr. Peterson was a caregiver who ” willfully or by culpable negligence neglect(ed) a child and in so doing cause(d) great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement.” The (1)(e)1 specification says that neglect is “A caregiver’s failure or omission to provide a child with the care, supervision, and services necessary to maintain the child’s physical and mental health, including, but not limited to, food, nutrition, clothing, shelter, supervision, medicine, and medical services that a prudent person would consider essential for the well-being of the child.” (1)(e)2 says that neglect is “A caregiver’s failure to make a reasonable effort to protect a child from abuse, neglect, or exploitation by another person.”
Caregiver is defined in Florida Statute 39.01:
(10) “Caregiver” means the parent, legal custodian, permanent guardian, adult household member, or other person responsible for a child’s welfare as defined in subsection (54).
Subsection 54 says:
“Other person responsible for a child’s welfare” includes the child’s legal guardian or foster parent; an employee of any school, public or private child day care center, residential home, institution, facility, or agency; a law enforcement officer employed in any facility, service, or program for children that is operated or contracted by the Department of Juvenile Justice; or any other person legally responsible for the child’s welfare in a residential setting; and also includes an adult sitter or relative entrusted with a child’s care. For the purpose of departmental investigative jurisdiction, this definition does not include the following persons when they are acting in an official capacity: law enforcement officers, except as otherwise provided in this subsection; employees of municipal or county detention facilities; or employees of the Department of Corrections.
It’s also defined in 827.01 as “a parent, adult household member, or other person responsible for a child’s welfare.” Given that Mr. Peterson was charged under 827.03, I’ll focus on the 827.01 definition.
Duty to protect
I’ve got two problems with the charges here. The first is that I don’t think Mr. Peterson was a caregiver. That day, he was a law enforcement officer. As such, he did not have a duty to protect any individual student, which the caregiver definition seems to require (“a child”). This lack of a duty to protect individuals is well-established, going back to the 1981 Warren v. District of Columbia case, or even to the 1968 case of Riss v. City of New York. Absent a “special relationship,” which is usually considered to be some form of custody, cops don’t have a duty to protect any individual citizen, even in the case of protection orders.
I don’t think any reasonable person could argue that Mr. Peterson had a “special relationship” with any student at MSD. If you were to successfully argue that, you’d be able to charge any SRO any time a student was injured during the school day.
Further, if Mr. Peterson was a sheriff’s deputy that day, then 39.01(54) specifically excludes him from being a caregiver. If a state’s statutes are in conflict, then generally you’d go with the more permissive version of a definition.
Who’s a caregiver?
The second problem with the charges is that if he was a caregiver, then so was every other adult in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that day. If he was a “person responsible for a child’s welfare,” then so was the principal, the janitor, and every other adult there. If they were all caregivers, then why is Mr. Peterson’s inaction being singled out? Because he was a cop and had special training? That doesn’t work. You can’t say he was a cop with a duty to protect and call him a caregiver.
If he’s a cop, even with the training he had, he didn’t have a duty to protect.
If he’s a caregiver, he’s not the only caregiver who failed to protect students that day, so why is he being prosecuted?
If Mr. Peterson is found guilty on the child neglect charges (possible, but not probable) and the convictions are upheld on appeal (highly unlikely), consider the fallout.
A school district chooses to allow certain teachers to carry firearms. A shooting occurs in that district at a school where two teachers are usually armed, and several students are killed. One of the teachers didn’t carry their firearm that day. Should they be charged with neglect?
A fire department crew rolls up on a working structure fire with people trapped. The captain decides it’s too dangerous to attempt a rescue, and two children die. Could you charge the captain with child neglect? The entire crew?
A state trooper arrives on the scene of a rollover crash and fire with people trapped but believes it’s too dangerous to try to rescue the occupants. A trapped child dies. Is that child neglect?
A school bus is struck by a trash truck, flipping the bus and trapping several students inside. The bus driver, wary of being charged with child neglect for failing to act, attempts to rescue a child but aggravates an otherwise survivable cervical injury, killing the child. Neglect?
I’m not defending Scot Peterson in any way. I feel he displayed cowardice that day. He was trained in active shooter response, and even as a trainer in active shooter response. He knew what to do. He’d been through realistic training. If he had any doubts about his ability to respond, he should have resigned long ago. I think he deserves to suffer the ignominy of his nickname for the rest of his life.
Because of his inaction, seventeen families lost kids that day. As a parent, I get wanting to punish him. I really do. Twisting definitions to fit a certain situation that cries out for justice is the wrong way to do it though. Use this as an impetus to fix bad law.
But don’t create a bad precedent in the process.
Image: Wikimedia Commons