People said heads must roll. The chief of police? The cops? The NRA? The FBI? After all, there must be someone we can fault when things go wrong, particularly when life is lost.
In the wake of the horrific slaughter of innocent people at Marjory Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day, folks are anxious to cast blame on the most obvious culprits, guns and bad cops. This is reminiscent of Ferguson, Missouri, 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson was publicly scorned by citizens and media pundits for shooting a helpless “unarmed” teen to death before all the true facts were known. Never mind that the kid was 18, weighed 300 pounds, was charging the cop in a menacing fashion and had already assaulted the officer by trying to steal his gun.
Fast forward to Deputy Scot Peterson, 54, the School Resource Officer at Parkland, Florida. This man served a stellar 33 year police career that ended sharply on February 14 when 17 people, mostly students, were murdered by a crazed, well-armed gunman inside the High School. We learned that Peterson was the officer outside the closed doors of the school when the shootings were happening and failed to enter and, perhaps, end the deadly assault. Are we right to castigate this man for failing to save lives?
As always, 20/20 hindsight gives us clarity. It’s conceivable that Officer Peterson could have stymied or halted the assault by entering the door and shooting the killer. There were no rules or written procedures preventing him from doing so. Matter of fact, it was his job to confront and save lives, even if it meant risking his own life. That’s what makes ordinary people into heroes.
Then, there’s reality. Officer Peterson heard a barrage of gunfire from outside that door. It was startling, sudden and confusing. One second, peace and tranquility, the next second, chaos. He didn’t know if there was one gunman or three gunmen, nor did he know the gunman’s position inside. He had no access to view the classroom from outside. It was very possible that he might be riddled with bullets the instant he cracked open the door, because he had no visual contact with which to evaluate.
Would he have been committing suicide by attempting to enter that classroom? He would certainly have become a hero. Perhaps he considered the old adage, “I’d rather be a live coward than a dead hero.” Emotions aside, we truly don’t know if Officer Peterson was a classic coward or an utterly confused cop. But we do know that he served the citizens of Broward County honorably for 33 years. That should count for something.
Contrary to what we see in movies and TV, shootouts are not common in most police careers. Cops rarely, if ever, fire weapons on the job unless they are assigned to a highly volatile, crime-ridden district. I never engaged in a classic shootout, even though I worked in uniform and then many years in Homicide. I fired my pistol some four or five times in 30 years with Miami-Dade, and they were mostly warning shots. I was shot once, suddenly caught off-guard by a hysterical woman with a rifle.
A cop can conceivably work 33 years on the job, or 12,045 days, and never once experience a typical movie-style confrontation involving gunfire. That’s a recipe for chronic “sedentary.”
Training is certainly important. Police officers go through extensive training, including the act of dealing with deadly confrontations. Those boxes are checked off for every sworn officer. But training is not reality. We can launch all the simulated exercises in the world, but when that moment occurs unexpectedly, pure instinct takes over.
Some have it. Some don’t.
At age 54, Officer Peterson would be near retirement. Perhaps he selfishly thought about his family, his pension, not to mention, remaining alive. Yes, I wish he, or someone, would have stormed that classroom, if only to prevent some of the senseless killings. I’m sure the friends and relatives of the dead and wounded don’t want to hear excuses. I don’t blame them.
That’s all history now. And so is Officer Peterson’s career. Forget about his 33 years. They don’t count any more. He will forever be remembered as the monster coward who coulda, shoulda, but did none of that. He will spend the rest of his life famed for one six-minute event, censured as a man who, some may say, allowed the needless deaths of young people to happen, even if he had to die as well.
Then again, who are we to judge?