A Choice to Punish or To Learn from Parkland

After the Parkland, Fl., school shooting February 14, 2018 the nation’s anger focused for a while on then-school resource officer Scot Peterson, who appeared to freeze outside the school while the gunman was firing. That focus has returned with a vengeance!

Peterson said in a TV interview six months later “It’s easy to sit there for people to go, ‘Oh, he should have known that that person was up there,”. The new twist is that now he faces criminal prosecution for his inaction. Did our questions and conclusions lead us to deeper understanding and prevention, or did we add Scot to the list of those damaged by the Parkland shooter?

Peterson explained that he stationed himself outside the building because that was where he believed the threat was located when he heard shooting. Could we learn by asking different questions, ones designed to understand why it made sense for Scot to do what he did? 

For a moment, let’s put away our natural bias to find people at fault. Let’s accept Scot Peterson’s account as accurate.  

When we engage in a response to an adverse outcome event, we, humans, naturally create assumptions about the situation and, more to the point, people’s reaction to the situation. Pause for a moment and think about all the things that were not known by Scot and which are obvious in hindsight: 

  • He did not know if there was a shooter – his first reaction was the thought that someone was lighting firecrackers.
  • He only heard a few shots. Were they the first shots or the last? He did not know where the shots were coming from—some reports suggested the school football field. 
  • Radio communications were not supporting the information-gathering and sense-making that Scot was attempting to conduct. There was conflicting information and a communication structure that prevented Scot from hearing key dispatch information.

The later video showed four plus minutes of nothing happening. If there was a school shooter, shouldn’t there be more activity?  Just in case, Scot clears the area and begins shutting down the school. His dispatch does not have any information because incoming 911 calls are being routed elsewhere. 

In the unfolding minutes, there is confusion regarding the position of the shots and it becomes clear there is an active shooter somewhere.

Five-six minutes.  This can seem like a long time to someone watching the video. There seems like so much time to react, to do something. But emergent situations are not like a video. Your mind races as you try to make sense of a flood of often conflicting pieces of information. 

Philip Zimbardo, a world renown psychologist, who is best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, has studied heroism and action in the face of adversity. He has asked what makes a villain and what makes a hero. 

Zimbardo said in his 2011 TED Talk:

“Some people argue humans are born good or born bad; I think that’s nonsense. We are all born with this tremendous capacity to be anything, and we get shaped by our circumstances—by the family or the culture or the time period in which we happen to grow up, which are accidents of birth; whether we grow up in a war zone versus peace; if we grow up in poverty rather than prosperity.” (Zimbardo 2011, TED, Ideas Worth Spreading)

It is doubtful that Scot was born bad. His history certainly suggests otherwise. The circumstances definitely influenced Scot’s actions and decisions. 

We now stand on a precipice of justness, Scot Peterson has been arrested and charged with seven counts of felony neglect of a child, he faces 96 years of imprisonment. He has been ridiculed as the “Coward of Broward” for staying outside while a gunman killed 17 students, teachers and staff members, and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. If the judgment of cowardice is at all an accurate description that applies to Scot, then we must ask, “When did cowardice become a crime?”

Mr. Peterson maintains that he faced a very different reality than the one portrayed by the media and in his arrest warrant. He has denied being scared or a coward. Instead he indicates that he was unsure of what was going on at the school as the event unfolded and the incoming information was inconsistent. Now with complete hindsight we can know nearly everything about what was happening, and much of it was likely unknown to Scot. In true human style, following a terrible event, we can slip into fundamental attribution error and blame Scot based on our knowledge and avoid considering any other explanation. The big question is, “Does this help us to prevent future accidents?”

“I was trying to figure it out,” he told a Post reporter. “I was scanning for the shooter, looking over the windows, the sidewalk, the rooftop. I thought maybe it was a sniper like in Las Vegas. I just didn’t know.”

This is a common human response when people face the unexpected. Scot related the information to the most recent occurrence that he could recall. It could be argued that he was quite simply trying to make sense of a situation he had never faced before. Playing out a number of scenarios, and any action he took could have been “right” or “wrong.” Adding pressure, the consequences of being wrong were potentially terrible. 

Misinformation also contributed to the fog of war that Scot was now in. Reports began to come in that the shooter was at the football field and not in a building. In the heat of the response Deputy Kratz, one of the responding officers reported on the radio, “Sounds like there’s some students say they thought it was firecrackers, but we’re not sure, by the football field” (excerpt of Peterson’s arrest warrant).  

This was a very confused scene. Mr. Peterson recounts, “Why didn’t I hear more shots? It doesn’t make sense. I should have heard them, but I didn’t.”

“It’s haunting,” he said in his interview with The Post. “I’ve cut that day up a thousand ways with a million different what-if scenarios, but the bottom line is I was there to protect, and I lost 17. You’re a hero or a coward, and that’s it.”

“It was all so fast,” he said. “I couldn’t piece it all together.”

“How can they keep saying I did nothing?” he asked The Post reporter. Then he listed the actions he took: “calling in the shooting on the radio, locking down the school, clearing students from the courtyard. It’s easy to sit there for people to go, ‘Oh, he should have known that that person was up there.’ It wasn’t that easy,” he said.

The building where the shooting took place may have made sensemaking even more difficult. It was a hurricane-proof building, extra thick glass and solid concrete, which both served to block the sound of the shots being fired.

We must ask as a society why it is so important to blame Mr. Peterson. We have the shooter in custody. We know that the incident was terrible and came as a result of the shooter’s actions. What do we gain by creating another Parkland victim in Mr. Peterson?

7 Comments

  1. Thomas P Reply

    I think a lot of the blowback is related to policing culture in America. Police departments and their unions have gone to court to argue there is no duty to protect citizens – and won those arguments (Warren v. District of Columbia, DeShaney vs. Winnebago and Town of Castle Rock vs. Gonzales). Those decisions, shall we say, were not met with resounding applause. When citizens see ‘To Protect and Serve’ on a patrol car but then see and interpret (correctly or not) an officer not taking overt actions on par with the shooters level of aggression there is a strong feeling of revulsion and shame against the officer. Honestly, that public outcry is the only reason that this officer is facing any consequences.

    This case highlights what some Americans feel, which is that the police are not there to protect or serve them as police departments enjoy advertising. Personally, I am surprised this officer is facing any consequences whatsoever (see the story of Tony Timpa in Dalls for an example of police getting off without meaningful consequence). At the risk of getting into politics, this situation straddles many hot political borders in America – school safety, mass shootings, police presence in schools, the perceived unwillingness or inability of police to provide safety or security, etc. and can’t be summed up only as a mass shooting event, IMO

    What I would like to see touched on is the role of any on-site police in establishing and maintaining perimeter security and emergency response processes. What is the point of an officer strolling the halls if the building perimeter is not maintained? Are there such significant threats in the interior hallways of the buildings that a police presence is warranted as a deterrent to violence? My magic 8 ball tells me “No.”

    Nikolas Cruz had been expelled and was a known troubled person who was spotted by a teacher walking into the building. It’s unclear how that information was communicated to other staff or the officer, but if this process hasn’t been established and trained on then some people are rightly asking, what in the world does this officer do all day?

    Great article!

  2. Ivan PupulidyIvan Pupulidy Post author Reply

    Hello Thomas P.

    Do you think that the shift in language from “Police” to “Law Enforcement” has had any influence on the behavior you describe? Also, how does the title of “School Resource Officer” influence attitude and job expectations?

    Very interesting response – thank you!

  3. William Martin Reply

    What an awesome article depicting the dangers of “outcome bias” and fundamental attribution error! We humans can’t come to a logical conclusion if we haven’t been educated on what effects our logic.

  4. Rosa Carrillo Reply

    I would contribute to Mr. Petersen’s defense even if he was afraid to enter the building. This is clearly a case of “someone has to pay.” Following this logic we should arrest all members of Senate who refused to even hear the bill to ban assault weapons and the National Rifle Assoc that pays to block any legislation. Then we’d have to look at all US citizens old enough to vote. Our collective acts of cowardice make Mr. Petersen look like a hero for showing up at the scene.

  5. Paul C Reply

    Is it not standard procedure in many police departments in the US that they wait for back up (3 officers) prior to entering a building when they are aware of an active shooter situation? Even had he known the situation he could be said to be following best practices by not entering.

  6. garyswong Reply

    My understanding is that Scot Petersen did act and applied 3 heuristics to make decisions during uncertainty: Keep moving, clear the area, stay in communication. Attention should be placed not on the person but the system. Apparently he stayed in communication but the information was conflicting and confusing. Blame fixes nothing. Changing system conditions and constraints do.

  7. Tim Griffiths Reply

    He did not have the complete situation awareness to effectively deal with what was happening. But loss of or lack of situation awareness is simply the difference between what the individual concerned knew at the time of the incident at what the investigators know when in possession of all the facts looking back with hindsight.

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