Of the many stories of heroism that come out of the Parkland shooting case, one that most certainly does not is the tale of now-former Deputy Sheriff Scott Peterson. Deputy Peterson was a school resource officer stationed at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School when the shooter began his rampage back on February 14, 2018. While it was Peterson’s duty to try and stop the shooter, allegations arose that he instead headed to a position of safety.
On Tuesday, June 4, 2019, after months of requests from the public that Peterson be held accountable, prosecutors in Broward County finally chose to act. There are eleven charges against Peterson, ranging from child neglect to culpable negligence, and even perjury. The court set bond at over $100,000. If convicted, he could easily spend the rest of his life in prison.
While for years many jurisdictions faced civil sanctions, should law enforcement fail to act, Peterson could be one of the first cases where an individual officer faces criminal liability for choosing not to act and do his job. So many interesting questions arise out the possibility of holding someone criminally accountable for not acting. Questions circle regarding the statutory purpose of child neglect laws and whether they are being perverted to charge Peterson. Questions arise as to whether Peterson’s failure to act was even the cause for these victims’ injuries. But even more interesting is the unique precedent that could be created should these charges stand.
If an officer can be guilty of a crime because they failed to act, who else can be? Can doctors who fail to treat a patient in a timely manner be guilty? What about firefighters who hesitate to rush into a burning building? Or teachers who choose to carry a firearm under the recent Florida Legislature’s plan to arm the classroom? Can criminal defense lawyers who fail to provide zealous representation be charged with false imprisonment? The possibilities are truly endless.
While there is no doubt that the Parkland shooting is a tale of sadness and misery, is holding this law enforcement officer accountable for failing to act really the way we get justice for grieving families? Whenever mass shootings of this nature occur, the public demands accountability from someone. In the past, we have seen this take the form of calls for politicians to resign or firings of school personnel. But when we get to the point where we start seeing criminal charges filed against individuals, do we need to take a pause and think if this is really the policy we want to create?
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy