The school resource officer who was on duty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on the day 17 people were shot dead did nothing to stop the attack, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel says.
Deputy Scot Ralph Peterson, 54, resigned his role in the Broward County Sheriff’s Department on February 22 after being informed that he was to be suspended without pay pending further investigation, Israel told the media. The sheriff says that Peterson “took up a position” outside of the Parkland, Florida, school but never entered the building where innocent people were being slaughtered. Israel said Peterson instead should have gone into the school to find and take down the shooter.
Israel said in a press conference that he wanted to “clarify any rumors, conjecture or stories that may have been out there.” The sheriff continued by saying that Peterson was armed, in uniform and “absolutely on campus” at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14. Israel said that he came to the decision to suspend and investigate Peterson’s actions based on video footage, Peterson’s statement and witness accounts. The New York Times reported the day before Peterson’s resignation that Coral Springs Police Officer Tim Burton had seen Peterson in the school’s parking lot “seeking cover behind a concrete column leading to a stairwell.”
On Friday, President Donald Trump twice criticized Peterson, calling him a “coward.”
“When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn’t have the courage or something happened, but he certainly did a poor job. There’s no question about that,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But that’s a case where somebody was outside, they’re trained, they didn’t react properly under pressure or they were coward. It was a real shot to the police department.”
Later, while speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump again brought up Peterson, telling the crowd, “He didn’t turn out to be too good, I’ll tell you that. Turned out to be not good, not a credit to law enforcement, that I can tell you.”
Meanwhile, the Broward County Sheriff’s Department continues to face questions over their handling of the various reports about accused gunman Nikolas Cruz’s behavior and threats he had allegedly made. Two other deputies, who handled those reports, Deputies Edward Eason and Guntis Treijs, have been placed on restrictive duty. The sheriff also said while announcing Peterson’s resignation, “Our main goal at this point, absent of helping these families heal and keeping our schools safe, is making sure this killer receives the justice he deserves.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Peterson, Who Thinks He Did a ‘Good Job’ During the Shooting, Was Recognized by the City of Parkland for His ‘Tact & Judgement’ in 2014
A press release from the city of Parkland said that Peterson was named their school resource officer of the year for 2014. The release said that Peterson had been the SRO at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School since 2009. It reads, “Deputy Peterson has proven to reliable in handling issues with tact and judgement.” It is also stated that Peterson was responsible for investigating crimes including property crimes, assaults and narcotics offenses. The release goes on to say that Peterson was active in “mentoring and counseling” students.
A year earlier, in 2013, Peterson was named the Broward County Sheriff Parkland employee of the year. NBC Miami’s Michael Spears reports that Peterson was nominated for Parkland Deputy of the Year with a recommendation calling Peterson “a dedicated SRO who values his position and takes pride in protecting the students, faculty and staff at his school.
Peterson, who could not be reached for comment, believes “he did a good job,” on the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School because he called in the location of the massacre and gave a description of the shooter, Jim Bell, the head of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, the local police union, told the New York Post.
Peterson is “distraught” by what happened, but thinks he did his job, Bell told the newspaper.
“He believed he did a good job calling in the location, setting up the perimeter and calling in the description (of Cruz),” Bell said Thursday night, hours after Peterson’s resignation was announced.
Bell said he didn’t want to second-guess Peterson, but thinks it was a mistake to not go in and try to engage the shooter.
“We have to act, even if that means risking our lives to save many many more lives. I would demand that from our union members,” Bell told the Post.
Peterson also had a run-in with Cruz prior to the shooting, The Washington Post reports. He is mentioned in a 2016 social services agency investigation into Cruz. The Florida Department of Children and Families report states that Peterson was approached by investigators and “refused to share any information,” with them, “regarding an incident that took place” with Cruz, according to The Post.
The sheriff’s office revealed that in 2016 it received “third hand information” from the son of Cruz’s neighbor that Cruz “planned to shoot up the school.” A deputy contacted the caller, found he had knives and a BB gun and sent the information to the school resource officer, who is not identified in the records but appears to be Peterson. It is not clear if he investigated further.
2. Peterson, While Fighting to Keep His Free On-Campus Housing, Once Said that a Report ‘Will Never Show How Much Crime’ SROs Prevent
Peterson was featured in a January 2015 Sun Sentinel article on SROs fighting to keep their jobs and perks in Florida. Officers were afforded residence in trailers on campuses as part of their job.
An official in Broward County said that the scheme did not add to the prevention of crime, citing an audit. Peterson is quoted in the article as saying, “These colleagues work hard. We are crime prevention, an audit report will never show how much we prevent.” Peterson is profiled as living at Atlantic Terminal College in Coconut Creek since 2000. That piece adds that Peterson has arrested “several juveniles” for breaking into the school.
Video of a February 2015 meeting posted on the Broward County website shows Peterson talking about the program while addressing the school board.
“I’ve been a police officer for 30 years and I’ve been a school resource officer for 25 years. Go Eagles, by the way,” Peterson said during his introduction to the board, referencing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mascot. “It’s a crime prevention program.”
He said one Sunday morning he was out washing his car and his cell phone went off and it was the school board alarm system alerting him to an alarm in the building’s cafeteria.
“And right there I knew, because I’ve been at that school for many years, I knew right when I heard the cafeteria, you know when you get the hairs on the back of your neck going up, I said, ‘that never goes off,'” Peterson told the board. “So I ran into my trailer, I grabbed my firearm and my ID and my shorts and my sneakers and I ran over to the cafeteria. As I got to the cafeteria, sure enough, there were four males inside the cafeteria. They saw me peaking through the glass, they obviously fled. I chased them, I’m getting older, but I chased them, I identified who I was and as ironic as it may seem, they ran right towards my trailer. So they ran past, jumped over the fence, I jumped over the fence, I apprehended two of them … threw them in the back, kept going, got the other two.”
Peterson also told the board about another “chilling” incident that occurred while he was living on the Atlantic Terminal College campus.
“It was about 11:30 at night, I’m laying in bed, trying to fall asleep and all of a sudden I hear this banging on the front door, banging, so I jump up, I get to the door and there’s a facilities lady who I’ve known, because I’ve been at the school for quite a few years and she’s screaming,” Peterson said. “She said ‘there’s a guy, all in black with a ski mask and a gun. I said ‘woah, obviously holy crap,’ pardon my French. So I ran, put some shorts on, ran out with my firearm, while I’m running to the school, I contact Coconut Creek Police, we set up a perimeter. Long story short, we caught the individual when he ran across the Coconut Creek Parkway and he was hiding near a bank.”
Peterson said they found he was an 18-year-old senior who “decided he was going to shoot out the cameras with a paintball gun.” He said Coconut Creek used “some discretion” and, said, “hey, it’s a prank,” and let him go.
“I know I’ve probably caught a 100 trespassers at Atlantic Technical Center,” Peterson said. “You get em, hey get out, don’t come back. We’re not here to sit there as ROCS officers and lock everybody up. It’s a great program.”
He concluded, “I’m almost on my way out, I’m 30 years, but I have other police officers that they’ve made homes there. They’re part of that community. We’re all here for the same goal, to protect our kids and to protect our property.”
3. Peterson’s Salary Was More Than $75,000 in 2016
The Sun Sentinel reports that Peterson earned $75,673.92, citing sheriff’s records. You can read Peterson’s retirement documents here:
Sheriff Israel was asked by reporters on February 22 what he would have expected Peterson to do during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. The sheriff replied, “Went in. Addressed the killer. Killed the killer. I think he remained outside for upwards of four minutes.” When asked about Peterson’s lack of action, the sheriff said he was “Devastated. Sick to my stomach. There are no words.” In their report on Sheriff Israel’s press conference, the New York Times noted that the sheriff “appeared emotional” and his “eyes appeared to glisten” while describing Peterson’s lack of action.
Peterson’s actions are being investigated by the Broward County Internal Affairs Sergeant Al Rengifo.
According to his personnel file, Peterson was hired by the Broward Sheriff’s Office in 1985 after he studied at Miami Beach Senior High School, Miami-Dade College and Florida International University. He was transferred to the school resource officer program in 1991.
4. Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Deputies are Protecting Peterson & His Family
NBC Miami reports that Palm Beach County deputies are providing protection for Peterson and his family. Online records show that Peterson now lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.
A neighbor, Nelson Sandy, told the Sun Sentinel that he saw Peterson leave his home at around 3 p.m. on February 22 accompanied by two Palm Beach Sheriff’s deputies. Sandy said, “They were here today, three police officers and they all left together.”
School officials and local residents said they were shocked by Peterson’s decision to not enter the school.
“I’m in shock and I’m outraged to no end that he could have made a difference in all this,” Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie told the Sun-Sentinel. “It’s really disturbing that we had a law enforcement individual there specifically for this reason, and he did not engage. He did not do his job. It’s one of the most unbelievable things I’ve ever heard.”
Brandon Huff, a senior at the school, told the newspaper he saw Peterson standing outside the school talking on his radio during the shooting.
“Two coaches went in and were shielding kids and throwing themselves in front of bullets and he did nothing,” Huff told the Sun-Sentinel.
Former Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti told the Miami Herald, “These events are over in three to five minutes. You don’t have the luxury to wait. You might not have the best equipment, you might have small numbers, but you’re armed. Those kids are not armed. You have to go in and engage the shooter. Our job is to protect and serve.”
But others defended him.
“There is no one that is going to tell you a negative thing about Deputy Peterson. He was an Eagle and he was committed to our school. I don’t know what he could have done other than literally died,” ninth-grade English teacher Felicia Burgin told the Sun-Sentinel.
Kevin Siegelbaum, a special education teacher at the school, told WPTV, “For me, I’m a little disheartened by the situation. I don’t know if he resigned because he just felt it was time to hang it up and he maybe already considering it. Until we hear from him, I don’t know if we’re ever going to find out.”
5. Sheriff Israel Says that In Future SRO Deputies Will Be Armed With Rifles
The day before Peterson’s resignation, Sheriff Israel announced that in future, his SROs will be armed with rifles on school premises. Those rifles will be locked in a secure patrol car until needed. Sheriff Israel said his decree is supported by the school superintendent.
According to the Inter Faculty Organization, the first school resource officer was placed in a school in Flint, Michigan, in 1953. A major rise in the number of officers occurred in the 1970s with the emergence of anti-drug and anti-gang programs. Between 1975 and 2008, there was 40 percent rise in the number of SROs in American schools. The Sun Sentinel reports that “most schools” in Broward County have one SRO while six in the county have two.
A 2009 ACLU report on SROs titled, “Policing in Schools: Developing a Governance Document for School Resource Officers in K-12 Schools,” argued that SROs should not play a role in school discipline issues and should only be focused on criminal incidents that occur on campus.
The U.S. Department of Justice has defined SROs as “sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.”