The trial of a former sheriff's deputy accused of failing to stop the shooter in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in 2018 may raise the standard for how law enforcement should react in such situations.
The fate of Scot Peterson, 60, who is accused of 11 counts, including felony child neglect and culpable negligence, is currently up for debate by a jury in Florida. He has asserted his innocence.
In a contentious national discussion about law enforcement's obligation to safeguard students during school shootings, which are frequent in the United States, Mr. Peterson's case has added a legal and moral dimension.
His trial takes place a year after the shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which sparked outrage and investigations after authorities were forced to wait more than an hour to enter the building while a shooter was killing young children inside.
Police officers are not required by law to give their lives up in the line of duty. But because of these tragedies, law enforcement is frequently forced to intervene to protect students from armed attackers.
Bob Jarvis, a lawyer and professor at Florida's Nova Southeastern University, claimed that "the entire country is watching this trial.". "It sets a precedent. The jury will reveal to us what the general public thinks of police officers.
According to Mr. Jarvis, "it will either open the door to a floodgate of future complaints against police for not rushing in, or it will slam the door pretty tight on the possibility of prosecutions like this.". ".
On February 14, 2018, as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz ransacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Mr. Peterson chose not to rush inside. 17 more people were hurt in addition to the 17 fatalities among students and staff.
73 seconds before Cruz reached the third floor of the 1,200-classroom building, Mr. Peterson entered the building with his gun drawn. He sought refuge in an outdoor alcove while he awaited rescue. According to him and his attorneys, he did so because he was unsure of the source of the gunshots.
By choosing not to enter that building as the shooter opened fire on students, Mr. Peterson, who was at the time a Broward Sheriff's Office officer, allegedly neglected his training and his duty. In what is allegedly the first instance of its kind, they are attempting to hold him legally liable for failing to confront Cruz.
No law mandates that a police officer put themselves in harm's way or risk their lives in the course of a shooting.
Instead, for the three injuries and four student fatalities that occurred on the third floor after Mr. Peterson arrived on the scene, as well as for the three adults who were shot there, prosecutors charged Mr. Peterson with seven felony counts of child neglect and three counts of misdemeanor culpable negligence.
A conviction depends on convincing the jury that Mr. Peterson was the children's caregiver and was therefore required to protect them.
According to Mr. Peterson's attorney, he was not in fact a caregiver.
"He is not a teacher, a parent, or a kidnapper who is in charge of the welfare of a child. "He's not employed by the educational system," defense lawyer Mark Eiglarsh told CNN as the trial got underway.
The caregiver case, according to Mr. Jarvis, was legally dubious because of its unusual application. He continued that even if the jury found in favor of the prosecution, the trial judge or an appeals court could rule that Mr. Peterson did not actually meet the legal requirements for caregiver status and reverse the jury's finding.
If the Peterson case goes to trial, not only police officers but also other school employees who are involved in a mass shooting will face a whole new set of legal issues.
A contentious law allowing teachers to carry guns to work has been adopted in some states. According to one expert, educators as well as police may be affected if Mr. Peterson is found guilty of felony child neglect.
Ron Astor, a researcher on school violence at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked, "What does that mean for all the teachers who have guns in schools?". "Will they be held accountable if they decide not to [confront a shooter]?".
Mr. Astor pointed out that even experienced police officers routinely request assistance when they feel they need it because of a situation. He continued by saying that not all security officers or school resource officers receive the kind of instruction necessary to equip them to deal with an assailant wielding an assault rifle.
He questioned, "Is it reasonable to do for someone who is not a member of a SWAT team, or trained in the military?".
Leaving legal issues aside, the case has sparked debate over whether a school resource officer, police officer, or other law enforcement official has a moral obligation to run toward gunfire.
Mr. Peterson's response has drawn criticism from Parkland parents and school resource officers.
The National Association of School Resource Officers' executive director, Mo Canady, said, "Our role in that situation, our obligation, is to go after the threat and do everything we can to stop it.
Despite being unable to comment on Mr. Peterson's education or experience, Mr. Canady told the BBC: "I do know I've seen many school resource officers respond in the right way, which is to attack the problem rather than sit back and wait for the cavalry. ".
It is your moral responsibility, he said. "You swear to protect and serve when you take the oath of office. ".
Even though Mr. Peterson's case won't put an end to the discussion about how to stop school shooters, it will probably act as a lesson for police who may have to deal with shootings in the future.
Mr. Jarvis, however, was less confident that Mr. Peterson's conviction would result in significant change.
Scot Peterson is a simple target because it's human nature to look for someone to blame, according to Mr. Jarvis. He contended that it was simpler to prosecute Mr. Peterson than it was to address the more complicated problems of the US's easy access to firearms and the scarcity of mental health services, especially for young men and boys.
Nicholas Cruz was able to carry out his actions as a result of "many, many failures," according to Mr. Jarvis.