Roll Call. Acquittal of Parkland resource officer the wrong decision

Scot Peterson failed students at Stoneman Douglas High School

Riverside Police Chief Tom Weitzel will retire in May after serving the community for 38 years, the last 13 as chief.

By now you undoubtedly have read the news regarding Scot Peterson, the school resource officer assigned to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who was acquitted in June of all charges related to the mass shooting on school grounds in 2018.

As the former police chief in Riverside, I directed all my sworn and civilian police personnel to read the 2019 after-action report. I wanted my officers to know both the positives and negatives of the situation that took place at the high school. Most of the report was not favorable toward the school resource officer. There was a consensus among the responding police agencies who were at the scene when the shooting started that the actions taken by law enforcement were positive and strictly adhered to the training received. In contrast, Peterson’s actions were woefully inadequate.

In 2019, I was asked to be a keynote speaker at the School Safety Campus National Symposium in Alsip.

I spoke on school safety, the partnerships between school safety personnel and police personnel and the partnership that needs to be developed between private vendors, contractors and school security personnel. In preparation for my presentation, I read the Parkland after-action report, listened to the police audio tapes, reviewed witness accounts and watched more than 43 minutes of videotape. I was stunned by the inappropriate and unprofessional response of the school resource officer and publicly denounced the actions of Officer Scot Peterson. At that time, those in the law enforcement profession criticized me for not supporting the officer. However, I could not in good conscience support how Peterson responded in the situation.

When the trial ended, Peterson’s lawyer said, “This was a victory for all law enforcement officers across the United States.” I am afraid I must disagree. From my decades of experience in law enforcement, I see no victory here in any way, shape or form. Peterson’s lawyer tried to paint the trial as a rogue prosecution against the officer, a view that I find abhorrent. The trial was preceded by a thorough investigation, including a 500-page action report issued by a blue-ribbon committee whose members were unanimous on their findings.

In the report, one debate focused on whether Peterson was, in fact, responsible for doing anything. This question decidedly flies in the face of common sense. School resource officers are tasked with the caretaking of students, staff and visitors. When parents drop their children off for school, the school resource officer, in many ways, acts as the parent/guardian when needed.

In Illinois, we already have a law for mandated reporting, a legal duty to act, which applies to all police officers. It is therefore inconceivable that police officers assigned to schools would not have a legal obligation to act when students’ lives are at stake. In videotapes, I watched Peterson hide behind doors and garbage cans when he heard gunshots. The bodies of fatally wounded students were clearly in view had he chosen to open the door to a hallway in front of him.

Part of the problem with the school officer program in Parkland is the lack of adequate preparation to be a school resource officer. Previously, it was common for police departments to assign less-motivated officers or those near retirement as school liaison officers. Thankfully, this practice is changing as the need for well-trained tactical officers has become painfully obvious. Sadly, during the Uvalde, Texas, mass school shooting, the officers, although trained, chose not to act, resulting in a horrific loss of life. In the aftermath, the entire Uvalde police department was fired, replaced by a new chief and new officers.

In the light of the renewed focus on police responsibility and accountability, how is it that Peterson was acquitted of all charges? I believe one mistake the prosecutor made in this case is that he overcharged Peterson. Juries typically do not like it when prosecutors or police are perceived to have overcharged an individual. Peterson faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted on all counts. I am sure this weighed heavily on the jury. I believe the prosecutor should have only charged Peterson with crimes that held him legally responsible for the jailable offenses, without a life sentence attached.

Seventeen students and staff were killed. Had Peterson been convicted, many believe he would have deserved a life sentence. In the end, given the trial’s outcome, I believe that had more reasonable charges been placed against Peterson, he would not have been acquitted.

After the trial, Peterson commented that one reason he did not enter the building was that he did not know where the gunshots were coming from. This is a ludicrous statement. Officers are trained for this type of situation. Realistically, no officer knows where shots fired are coming from. Standard procedures dictate that when you enter a building, you follow the sounds of the shots until you can engage the shooter. At Parkland, Peterson clearly failed to fulfill his law enforcement duties.

In the wake of this tragedy and other school shootings, police departments are taking steps to ensure that officers assigned to schools are trained and fit for the job. Acknowledging that school resource officers are vital to school safety, they are now some of the best trained, physically fit and tactically proficient officers in American law enforcement.

In closing, I want to emphasize that I respect our criminal justice system, but in this case, the system failed. From my viewpoint, garnered from years in the field and as a police chief, I believe that Peterson was 100% responsible to act as a police officer on that day. Ultimately, his failure to do so was both a violation of his sworn duty and a contributor to the number of lives that were lost.

  • Tom Weitzel was chief of the Riverside Police Department. Follow him @chiefweitzel.