FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Florida’s top law enforcement agency says it is investigating whether police committed crimes while responding to February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Immediately after the shooting, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate law enforcement’s response to the shooting, including actions by school deputy Scot Peterson, who took cover outside rather than rush into the building as teachers and children were being shot.
Now, the department says its inquiry is a criminal investigation. The claim raised questions about whether police could be held criminally liable for faltering and not swiftly taking down the shooter.
In addition, experts question whether the label of a criminal investigation is actually designed to shield public records from view. Florida law allows law enforcement to withhold some records related to active criminal investigations.
Besides Peterson, several other deputies, unsure of where the shooter was, took cover behind cars during the shooting. Police did not enter the school until 11 minutes after the first shot. Seventeen people, 14 of them students, died as the gunman marched through the school with an AR-15 rifle.
The Law Enforcement Department’s communications director, Gretl Plessinger, said the agency is investigating “if there was anything illegal done by the law enforcement officers who responded to the scene that day.” She would not identify the target of the investigation, but she said it is not Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who heads a fact-finding commission into the Feb. 14 shooting, said the criminal investigation “involves the response and Peterson and a number of things.” He said he was not at liberty to say more.
The Law Enforcement Department would not reveal what laws Peterson or any other officers may have broken that day, saying it will be up to the Broward State Attorney’s Office to decide. The State Attorney’s Office declined to clarify the matter.
“We do not know what the potential charges could be until the evidence is presented,” said Constance Simmons, spokeswoman for the state attorney.
Legal observers say an officer could be prosecuted for official misconduct for falsifying or concealing records. But such prosecutions typically involve a false arrest.
”If you could show the officer was AWOL or under the influence, there might be some case that he was involved in some sort of official misconduct that impacted his ability to respond to these events,” said former New York police officer Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a nationally recognized expert on policing issues.
It’s “inconceivable,” however, he said, that the state would pursue a criminal case on the grounds that Peterson made a “tactical judgment” not to intervene in a mass murder. Peterson had a handgun while the intruder’s weapon was a semi-automatic rifle.
Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney Bruce Zimet, who is not involved in the matter, said: “Certainly, doing a bad job is not criminal. However, lying about what you did, if you’re a law enforcement officer, could be, under certain circumstances, criminal in nature.”
Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, said he was “dumbfounded” by the investigation.
“I didn’t even know they were doing that,” he said.
The union represents 1,300 Broward deputies. Bell said a couple of dozen deputies were called in as witnesses but he knew of no deputy who has been interviewed as a suspect in a crime.
A criminal conviction against Peterson could strip him of the $8,702 monthly pension he began collecting soon after he resigned. Under Florida law, a public official can lose retirement benefits if convicted of certain felonies including official misconduct.
Labeling the state inquiry as “criminal” has other political and strategic benefits, as well.
It blocks the media from accessing records under Florida’s open records law and interfering with the flow of information released by Gualtieri’s commission, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created by law last March to investigate systemic failures related to the shooting.
The 16-member commission, which has no jurisdiction over criminal matter, must produce a report to the governor and the legislature by Jan. 1.
I can't wait to see what is in this report.