This was supposed to be the 3rd and final piece in a series on American gullibility. That will have to wait. South Florida has experienced its own mini- “9/11” and it can’t be ignored. The Stoneman-Douglas HS shooting has everyone rattled. Daily, like with 9/11, something seems to be discovered that might have short-circuited the carnage. The latest was the failure of Broward County School Resource Officer D/S Scot Peterson to react and then the possibility two or three others didn’t either. Now there are calls for the Sheriff’s resignation; in less than a week he went from being a dark horse potential political candidate for governor to being lucky if he could be elected dog-catcher.
Having spent over 3 decades as a civilian volunteer in law enforcement and then my final 8 working years as an employee of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, this is an as yet untold story of “why?” or “why not?” and it is haunting me. I must ruminate on it with you.
First some facts. The Broward County Sheriff’s Office (BSO), headed by Sheriff Scott Israel, now the most recognized law enforcement officer on the planet, is huge. It has over 5000 employees, 3,800 sworn deputies and 600 certified fire fighters. A unique, and complicating factor in running it, is that it is a law enforcement jig saw puzzle put together by the provision of services to numerous numbers of municipal jurisdictions that chose to give up the costs of providing good law enforcement to their citizens and contract with BSO to do that.
Many of its officers have spent many years in different law enforcement cultures. Their acceptance into the law enforcement body of BSO may or may not have been smooth. The jurisdiction they came from may or may not be respected as a law enforcement department in the eyes of some other jurisdictions. And while they all went through the Police Academy and are certified by The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and then work with a BSO training officer, their post-academy experiences, training, and supervision can be quite different than their fellow officers who came from other jurisdictions or whose whole career has been with BSO.
Additionally, the choice of an SRO (School Resource Officer) is complicated. They might be younger and less experienced because it is thought they would mix more easily with the students. They may be older because giving a fatherly or grandfatherly appearance, the students might take to them more easily. While they all have the same mission, they may execute it differently. Some lean towards being friendly and accessible, some think keeping one’s distance physically and emotionally is best. Clearly whether one is in an elementary, middle or high school makes a difference. And believe it or not, some principals aren’t thrilled with the idea of cops in schools altogether–or weren’t up until last week.
A few other thoughts before we get to now former Deputy Sheriff Peterson. Sometimes a resource officer is posted at a particular school because he or she is supposed to be the eyes and ears of another unit. The school may be perceived to have a drug problem or gang problem, or bullying problem. Yes, departments have been known to put an SRO into a school as a “plant” just like sometimes they put an extremely young looking cop into the school undercover as a student. In fact, if memory serves, the concept of police in schools was rooted in gang and drug issues not terrorism and mass murder.
More notes. We know that the average cop never fires his/her gun on duty for their entire career.
The FBI tells us that the accuracy rate for range shooting is 80%-90%; that’s hitting the target, but not necessarily in a lethal spot. The accuracy rate drops to 18% in a shoot out.
Sheriff Israel said Peterson should have gone in, engaged the shooter and killed him. Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw points out that things are quite different when someone is shooting at a target vs. the target shooting back at you. It isn’t only the adrenaline, it’s trying to keep yourself and your fellow officers from getting shot while you’re shooting back. There’s a lot of movement and motion involved, not just aiming and firing.
Thus there is no uniform model for a school cop. Much goes, or should go, into the choice of who gets to be one. How that person colors in the lines while painting his or her picture of what an SRO should “look” like can be quite different.
Now we come to then D/S Scot Peterson, a veteran, decorated, and honored BSO officer, 54 years old who has been at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS since 2009. (Could that have been too long? Did he become complacent?) What was he thinking at that moment in time? That’s part of the problem. Usually there is no time to think. One of the most difficult things about being a cop is that police work is 90% boredom and 10% unimaginable action. It’s training and muscle memory that makes the cop function. In a crisis your training is supposed to trump thinking; once you think, you’re in trouble.
Once that didn’t happen for D/S Peterson was he thinking about his four kids? Was he thinking about how close to retirement he was? Was he thinking about life after divorce? We just don’t know yet. He’s left town. Wouldn’t you?
We do know that according to the Palm Beach Post he was just about everyone’s favorite neighbor. He was friendly, hard working, helpful, neighborly. Now he’s in the wind trying to escape what? The torrent of threats and curses that are coming non-stop. The reality is that for as long as he lives those 17 lives, correctly or incorrectly, will be “on him,” that no one, including his children will ever have a conversation with him without wanting to ask him, “What the hell happened to you out there?”
Some more facts. Cops have a higher than national average divorce rates. Cops have a higher than the national average alcoholism rate. Cops have a higher than the national average suicide rate. And the vast majority of them have never experienced a scenario that faced Peterson. He’s already divorced. What else awaits him?
My points? First that there were already dead students by the time Peterson heard the shots. Secondly, the stats say it is unlikely that the first or even second shot would have stopped the shooter or maybe even hit him–and that’s once he found him. Thirdly, there is nothing one can do to D/S Peterson than is worse than what he will do to himself as he lives with his failure to act–if he chooses to live with it. As Muhammad Ali said of his opponents, “There’s no place to run and no place to hide.” I had a friend going through a rough patch in life. She decided to move to Europe. Then she didn’t. Why? She said, “I realized no matter where I went I’d have to take my problems with me.” Such is life now for a guy who undoubtedly became a cop for the same reason as most every other cop, to help make the community a better place to live, but didn’t.
Let’s let the man tell his story. Is it possible that it was bad luck and incredible odds that out of 3,800 cops the four who wouldn’t or couldn’t react were at this scene? Or is there a flaw in the hiring and training that needs to be found and fixed? Should the protocols for choosing and placing SRO’s be changed? Let’s learn as much as possible from this misfire so it doesn’t happen again. There’s a reason why when possible cops have partners or are told not to act until back up comes. The human element has now taught us that some crisis situations can be too much for one person to handle and that the person can freeze. While dealing with all these questions, let’s let Peterson figure out how to go on. Vilifying him will not bring back those 17 sons and daughters, now angels. Acting like that would be, as so many gun advocates like the detestable like the NRA’s Dana Loesch, a mother who lies to children and to the nation, would say, “It’s the Christian thing to do.”