The longtime campus cop, widely lambasted for not entering Marjory Stoneman Douglas High during the massacre that killed 17 people, made his first public statement on Monday, saying he did not storm the halls looking for the shooter because he initially did not believe that gunfire was happening inside the building.
Peterson said his actions during the Valentine’s Day massacre “were appropriate under the circumstances.”
In a statement released by his lawyer, Peterson said he “heard gunshots but believed those gunshots were originating from outside of the buildings on the school campus,” according to the release. “BSO trains its officers that in the event of outdoor gunfire one is to seek cover and assess the situation in order to communicate what one observes with other law enforcement.”
The veteran school resource officer said he “took up a tactical position” between two others buildings next to Building 12, where shooter Nikolas Cruz spent six minutes unleashing gunfire with an AR-15 assault-style rifle.
“Allegations that Mr. Peterson was a coward and that his performance, under the circumstances, failed to meet the standards of police officers are patently untrue,” according to the statement sent from Fort Lauderdale attorney Joseph DiRuzzo.
He added: “Let there be no mistake. Mr. Peterson wishes that he could have prevented the untimely passing of the 17 victims on that day.”
Monday’s detailed statement comes four days after Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, in a stunning revelation, singled out Peterson for failing to engage Cruz, who slipped away but was soon captured off school grounds. The sheriff said Peterson waited outside Building 12 for four full minutes while Cruz continued the slaughter inside.
Officers are generally taught to engage active shooters immediately and not wait for backup. “I am devastated. Sick to my stomach. He never went in,” Israel said during a news conference Thursday.
Hours before the press conference, the Broward Sheriff’s Office suspended the longtime deputy without pay, but he promptly retired. Peterson, a 32-year veteran, was named school resource officer of the year in Parkland four years ago.
Peterson has been widely criticized for not trying to find Cruz. Even President Donald Trump on Monday weighed on, saying “I really believe I’d run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon.”
BSO on Monday did not initially respond to a request for comment on Peterson.
BSO’s policy states that an officer “may” — not “must” — enter a building when an active shooter is attacking, meaning Peterson might not have violated any technical rules. Still, police tactical experts say, most active-shooter training calls for cops to identify the location of a gunman, whether inside or outside.
“If the gunfire is directed at you, it would make sense to try and seek a position of cover,” said Pete Blair, Executive Director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University. “(If) it wasn’t, we encourage officers to try and find the source of the gunfire.”
Jeff Bell, the president of BSO’s police union, said Monday that he didn’t think Peterson was a coward but does think the campus cop did not do enough that day.
“I’m sorry, after 100 to 120 rounds being fired, if he still can’t figure out where the gunfire is coming from, then there are issues,” said Bell, the head of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, which is not representing Peterson.
In the statement, Peterson claimed he took up a position outside Building 12 after rushing over to respond to a report of firecrackers. He and security specialist Kelvin Greenleaf ran out of another building on the sprawling campus and ran “a couple hundred yards” north to Building 12.
Peterson said that he was the first BSO deputy to dispatch on the radio that shots were being fired. Peterson nor his lawyer said whether the officer saw any students rushing from the building, or any alarming activity through the windows of Building 12 that would suggest an active shooter inside.
He also claimed that he told a first-arriving Coral Springs officer that he “thought that the shots were coming from outside.”
“Radio transmissions indicated that there were a gunshot victim in the area of the football field, which served to confirm Mr. Peterson’s belief that the shooter, or shooters, were outside,” according to the lawyer.
Peterson also said he “had the presence of mind” to have school officials review closed-circuit TV cameras “to locate the shooter,” while later giving Coral Springs SWAT officers the keys to the building so they could enter.
The lawyer also ripped into Israel for prematurely criticizing Peterson while cautioning the public to wait for the results of a fast-moving investigation.
“Sheriff Israel’s statement is, at best, a gross oversimplification of the events that transported,” the statement said.
BSO’s response to the shooting has become a hotly debated political issue, with some Republican lawmakers calling for the ouster of the Democratic sheriff, who was first elected in 2012. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, at request of Gov. Rick Scott, is now reviewing if BSO and other police agencies responded correctly to what became the deadliest school shooting in state history.
The same day Israel called out Peterson, the department also released a timeline of 23 interactions that BSO had with Cruz and his family over the past decade.
At least two of those interactions remain under investigation by BSO’s internal affairs unit, including a 2016 tip that Peterson was alerted that Cruz might pose a threat to a school. Peterson’s lawyer did not address whether Peterson properly investigated Cruz in that earlier case.
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