A school police officer in the US is facing multiple charges of child neglect after he infamously failed to intervene in the Parkland school shooting in Florida last year, when seventeen people were killed and seventeen wounded.
Back in 2018 public outrage swiftly focused on School Resource Officer Scot Peterson for his inaction during the shooting. Not only did Peterson remain at a distance under cover as shots rang out, he reportedly discouraged other officers from entering the school and seemingly lied about how many shots he had heard.
Even President Trump weighed in on what many concluded was an instance of sheer cowardice on the part of the officer.
While it's obvious that something went wrong and the officer's actions were questionable at best, Peterson now faces up to 97 years in prison if convicted of these charges.
The basic question ought to be simple: did the officer do what an officer is supposed to do?
This is a professional question foremost, as much as a charge of negligence or misconduct in medicine, law, or finance would be.
And based on the warrant, Peterson failed in his professional duties.
His 2016 Active-Shooter training emphasised the need for officers to “move directly and quickly toward known threat”, and reminds officers that “every time you hear a gunshot…you have to believe that is another victim being killed.”
According to the warrant, the training course Peterson attended in 2016 specifically places the lives of hostages/victims and innocent bystanders in top priority, followed only then by police/deputies and finally the suspect, stating:
“The priorities are there to help focus your action. If in doubt about going through the door after a suspect, think about the victims and where they stand on the list.”
Instead the warrant alleges that Peterson “failed, declined or refused” to investigate the source of the gunshots, fled 75 feet from the building where the gunshots were heard and remained under cover for the duration of the incident, did not move toward the sound of the gunfire and did not seek to confront or engage the shooter.
Scapegoating vs setting an example
The elephant in the room is that armed officers in schools are one of the measures proposed by gun-control opponents as an alternative to restricting the availability of firearms.
It's an embarrassment to “good guy with a gun” proponents when the designated good guy does nothing to stop the bullets. The logical conclusion is that this guy wasn't good enough. That has to be the conclusion, or else admit that protecting children from school shooters is beyond our control.
The law is not supposed to answer to public perception of how police officers should behave, nor is it supposed to provide scapegoats for an outraged population invested in the idea that officers like Peterson ought to be sufficient defence against mass shootings.
Punishing Peterson risks becoming an act of scapegoating if the court fails to distinguish between professional duty and the unrealistic expectation that an armed officer “save the day”.
But if this distinction is maintained, then punishment will also exercise the educative effect of the law.
If Peterson is found to have failed in his duties and punished for it, that will become part of the context for people accepting these school officer roles in future, and it will inform their actions in the unlikely event of a massacre on their watch.
That doesn't mean the next officer on duty will be able to prevent a mass shooting, or that Peterson could have necessarily saved lives if he had followed his training. There's little evidence of armed guards preventing or successfully intervening in mass shootings in schools.
America's resistance to gun control means they can't stop bad guys getting guns, and it turns out they can't guarantee there will be a “good guy” on site when he's most needed either.
We are always moved by the heroics of unarmed teachers, staff, and students who take on shooters in schools, or risk their own lives protecting others, and the Parkland shooting is no exception. It's logical to think that having an armed guard with law-enforcement training would stack the deck for an even better outcome.
But that's not how heroism works, nor is it the answer to systemic failures of gun control and threat assessment.
The Active-shooter Training demands outright heroism from police officers. It would take great courage to run towards the gunfire instead of away from it, and in line with the training and our ideals for the police force there is an element of self-sacrifice required.
Whether the charges and eventual punishment are warranted in this case, it will play into the narrative that the gun problem in America can be solved through personal acts of heroism and ad hoc responses to threats, without addressing the availability of powerful weapons in the first place.
Peterson may end up both worthy of blame and a scapegoat for the broader community that still rejects systematic gun control.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.