(Reuters) - A former Florida sheriff's deputy was arrested on Tuesday on felony and misdemeanour charges stemming from his lack of response in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead, the county sheriff said.
Scot Peterson, 56, who was taken into custody, faces multiple counts of child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury, Broward County State Attorney Mike Satz said in a statement. The charges carry a combined maximum prison sentence of nearly 97 years, he said.
Peterson, at the time a Broward County deputy, was on duty as a school resource officer when a gunman entered the school building in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14, 2018, and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others. He never went inside during the shooting, according to the sheriff's office and surveillance video.
Nikolas Cruz, who was 19 at the time and had been expelled from the school, was charged with the murders. He is awaiting trial.
Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, said that while the law enforcement community is upset with how Peterson handled the incident and the harm to its reputation, his failure to act was not criminal.
"What concerns me...is we are setting a dangerous precedent by coming after law enforcement," he said. "In the future, if we don't break up a fight in a school, will that be negligent? When does it stop?"
"You have to be considered a caregiver to be charged with neglect and police officers are not caregivers, we are first responders," he said.
Peterson is the first police officer to be charged with a crime based on his actions responding to an active shooter situation, his attorney Joseph DiRuzzo said in a written statement.
He plans to "vigorously defend" his client against the charges that "lack basis in fact and law."
"Today the individuals who have made this charging decision have taken the easy way out and blamed Mr. Peterson for the actions on February 14, 2018, when there has only ever been one person to blame – Nikolas Cruz," he wrote.
Peterson also faces legal trouble in civil court. In May 2018, Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Peterson. His son Hunter said on Twitter that he hoped Peterson spends the rest of his life in prison.
"He cowered in Parkland while my sister died defenceless and lied about his failure to confront the shooter," he said.
Peterson was booked into the Broward County jail and his bond set at $102,000 (80,264.4 pounds).
Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony said on Tuesday he had fired Peterson and another deputy, Brian Miller, who he said neglected their duties during the shooting.
"We cannot fulfill our commitment to always protect the security and safety of our Broward County community without doing a thorough assessment of what went wrong that day," Tony said in a statement.
Peterson resigned a week after the shooting. But his and Miller's termination means they can no longer serve as law enforcement deputies for the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the sheriff said.
Peterson's arrest follows a 14-month investigation that included interviews of 184 witnesses.
Some sheriff's deputies held back too long as shots were fired instead of rushing towards the gunfire, according to a 485-page report by a state-appointed commission released in January.
The commission also found Broward County Sheriff's Office training on active shooters was inadequate. The commission recommended arming teachers and spending more on school security and mental health to prevent similar mass shootings.
Seven deputies in all were under an internal sheriff's office investigation to determine if their actions complied with department standards, Tony said.
Broward County Public Schools officials were not immediately available for comment.
Senator Rick Scott, who was governor of Florida when the shooting happened, said it was time for justice to be served.
"Had this individual done his job, lives would have been saved. Actions (or inaction) have consequences," he said in a statement.
Three weeks after the shooting, Scott signed into law a bill imposing a 21-year-old legal age requirement and three-day waiting period on all gun purchases and allowing the arming of some school employees.
(Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Richard Chang and Sonya Hepinstall)