Questions about the Parkland Shooting (2): The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson

Here’s my second round of generally unasked questions about the Parkland shooting:

What legitimate purpose was served by branding Deputy Sheriff Scot Peterson a coward, thereby inducing his resignation and tarnishing his career, before the investigation into his performance had been completed (in fact, it had barely gotten underway), and (obviously) before all of the relevant facts were in?

I can think of a couple of patently illegitimate purposes:

  1. The demonization of Peterson facilitated some awe-inspiringly gratuitous virtue-signaling, the ne plus ultra of which was Donald Trump’s mind-blowingly idiotic claim (even for him) that he, Trump, would have gone in to confront the shooter with or without a weapon in hand. Unclear what this “act” of bravado would have accomplished, except to have put a bullet in Trump’s brainless head–not a bad outcome, I suppose, but not precisely the intended one. But let’s not stop with Trump: lesser versions of Trump’s grandstanding–or waking dreamwork–have now become ubiquitous. Apparently, we live in a country of bravehearts and tactical experts who know a coward-under-fire when they see one on video, or rather, read about the video on Facebook.
  2. The attacks on Peterson also reinforced the essentially Trumpian ethos of making personnel decisions a matter of mobocratic approbation or disapprobation, a la “The Apprentice.” Professionals are now being fired across the country and across professions (or else being induced to resign their positions), not for demonstrable violations of professionally-relevant standards, but for reasons of PR and image control: what looks bad is bad has become the axiom. The people acting on that axiom are now commonly hailed as “courageous” for firing helpless subordinates without a feasible means of challenging their higher-ups; its victims have become the scapegoats that everybody loves to hate. The inversion of virtue to vice, and subordination of reality to appearance, has become complete.

I’m curious to know whether anyone can adduce good reasons for Peterson’s being treated the way he was. Naturally, the video that depicts Peterson’s supposed delinquency is not being released, because it’s part of an “ongoing” investigation (which didn’t stop the authorities from releasing confidential material on Cruz’s state of mental health). In other words, the video that is generating so much outrage is mostly invisible to the people undergoing the outrage, because the agency in custody of it is engaged in an “investigation” with an outcome they’ve already announced. It all gives new meaning to the old cliche, “Nothing to see here.”

This article in The New York Times casts doubt on the supposedly airtight case against Peterson. The case he makes is simple, and if true, conclusively exonerating:

  1. Peterson thought that the gunfire was taking place outside.
  2. Agency protocols assert that if gunfire is taking place outside, you remain outside to confront it.
  3. There was good reason to think that the gunfire was taking place outside.
  4. There was, in any case, a great deal of uncertainty in real time as to what was happening on the ground.
  5. Accusations of “cowardice” ought never to be made in haste, or from non-alethic motivations, especially when the target’s behavior can as easily be explained by non-culpable error as by vice.

Not having seen the video of Peterson’s “failure” to enter the building–“failure” being the tendentious and question-begging term widely used to describe the fact that he didn’t enter it–I can’t say conclusively that it shows or doesn’t show professional delinquency on his part. And not being a cop, it’s not obvious to me that watching the video would be conclusive anyway. What I don’t quite understand is how so many people in my shoes are so confident that Scot Peterson is a disgusting coward who ought to take the fall for the Parkland killings. It isn’t obvious. It’s probably false. But I’m willing to be enlightened on the subject–by someone who knows what they’re talking about. I merely note that such people appear to be in short supply.

4 thoughts on “Questions about the Parkland Shooting (2): The Premature Demonization of Scot Peterson

  1. People often, irrationally and very quickly, seek someone to blame instead of simply waiting for the facts to come to light. We call that frustration tolerance, and it’s a product of maturation. Piaget said not all folks get to the 4th and final stage of development (the formal operational stage). If anything is evidence of what Piaget had to say, this type of behavior is it.

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  2. Pingback: Questions on the Parkland Shooting (4): Lockdowns and Legalities | Policy of Truth

  3. A judge has apparently permitted the release of audio and video pertaining to the performance at the scene of the Parkland shooting of Deputy Scot Peterson and generally, the police departments involved. Here is the audio, released via an article in the Miami Herald, of police units and police dispatch, and 911 calls and police dispatch. To use dispatch language, independent listening and thought are advised. Though the article blithely describes Peterson as “disgraced,” it seems to me that it’s the reporting that’s the real disgrace:

    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/broward/article204226584.html?anf=TOP_STORIES

    I strongly recommend listening to the whole 18:10 audio before evaluating the tendentious, cherry-picked “reporting” that constitutes the bulk of the article.

    From the article:

    The second-by-second timeline and audio recording of police radio chatter sheds new light on the chaotic and much scrutinized law enforcement response to the bloodshed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High on Feb. 14, the state’s worst school shooting.

    The records appear to support Broward Sheriff Scott Israel’s contention that Peterson, a longtime school resource officer, should have entered Building 12 to engage Cruz and try to prevent deaths. They also appear to show that other deputies may have refrained from rushing into the school at the direction of Peterson and a Parkland captain. The response by the agency has been the subject of national scrutiny, and is currently under review by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

    Jeff Bell, the president of BSO’s police union, welcomed the release of the audio and timeline

    “It certainly backs up that he never went into the school,” Bell said of Peterson. “At one point he says to keep back 500 feet. Why would he say that?”

    Even the first, apparently uncontroversial sentence of this passage is misleading: yes, the audio sheds new light on what happened at the scene. But no, the timeline does not do so. The timeline merely serves to cherry-pick events from the audio to build a case against Peterson, ignoring all evidence that tends to exonerate him. The audio doesn’t suggest that the response was “chaotic”; it suggests that the scene was chaotic, and that the police response to the chaos was relatively orderly.

    The second paragraph is just tendentious nonsense that lacks even the courage of its own pseudo-convictions. The audio record does not “appear to support Broward Sheriff Scott Israel’s contention that Peterson…should have entered Building 12 to engage Cruz and try to prevent deaths.” Only an argument can support a contention, and the audio contains no argument, just fragments of dispatch conversation taking place under conditions of duress.

    The audio does show that other deputies refrained from rushing into the school at Peterson’s and possibly another officer’s direction; contrary to the article, that doesn’t entail any “should” judgment about anything.

    It’s characteristic of bad journalism that it fails to qualify claims that need qualification, and then over-compensates by qualifying claims that don’t need it. Barring Cartesian considerations, there’s no need to claim, absurdly, that the audio “appears” to show that Peterson told officers to stay away from the building; he just comes out and says it. Unless there is reason to doubt that the person who said it was Peterson (the article gives no reason), the “appears” is both gratuitous and silly, except as a ham-handed “proof” of the workman-like “caution” being employed by the reporters.

    The last sentence of the paragraph, unlike its predecessors, is a banal truism–thrown in, apparently, to take the edge of the nonsense that comes before it.

    The quotation from Jeff Bell is simply pointless: yes, at “one point” Peterson tells officers to keep back from the building. But contrary to the article’s suggestion, a rhetorical question doesn’t explain why he did.

    Not mentioned or dealt with in the article: the audio provides more than enough evidence to support the main claims of Peterson’s attempt to defend himself against charges of cowardice (as per the original post above). There was some reason to think that the shooter was outside, and some reason to think that the shooting was taking place outside. It’s possible that the officers wanted to set up a perimeter before they rushed inside: they might have reasoned that if the shooter was outside, they’d miss him by going inside. The article mentions that the decision to set up a perimeter was later scrutinized, but says nothing about its reasonability. Obviously, it took a few minutes to set up a perimeter, during which time lives were lost. On the other hand, had the shooter been outside, and the deputies mistakenly rushed inside to confront him, lives might well have been lost that way–and the shooter might have gotten away. It’s one thing to make judgment about this weeks after the fact, and another to have made one at the time, on the scene.

    Also not dealt with in the article: there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on, and even uncertainty about which building was which (a common occurrence when emergency units are called to a large campus or even a large apartment complex, as I can attest from personal experience with both sorts of event). Though the audio refers only to a “shooter” (in the singular), it’s at least conceivable that the officers on the scene were considering the possibility that there were more than one (at least, I hope they were).

    Completely missing from this incompetent article is any sense of the overall uncertainty of the situation, which the reporters, with the benefit of hindsight, “appear to” blame on the responders.

    Reading this article, one wonders which of the following is the goal: reporting the news, or trying one’s best to make a case for the prosecution?

    “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,” Peterson’s attorney said.

    But Peterson, according to the timeline and radio dispatches reviewed by the Miami Herald, remained focused on Building 12.

    In light of the radio dispatches, the timeline is an irrelevant distraction: the timeline retrospectively gives order to the dispatches that the dispatches didn’t have, and that those involved in them didn’t have. A listener who needs a timeline to follow the audio hasn’t grasped the significance of the fact that the participants had no timeline at the time. They were participants in a series of events, not spectators on a timeline representing a select set of those events.

    Beyond that, it would take a lot more evidence than a one-liner to prove that “Peterson…remained focused on Building 12.” Not even the audio by itself proves that he “remained focused on Building 12”; it reveals that he was dealing with many things at once. But more to the point, “focus” is a mental state, and an audio of radio dispatches by definition says nothing about the mental state of one party to the dispatches. At (very) best, it offers evidence relevant to a (complex) judgment about his mental state: Building 12 was one of the things, among others, that Peterson was focused on. The idea that a radio dispatch could conclusively prove that one party to the dispatch was “focused” only on this or that should elicit incredulous laughter, not the respectful treatment that this article is getting.

    I would suggest that our “focus” on Scot Peterson’s on-the-scene performance is colossally misplaced. There is no way for people without police training–people who have never been under fire and have never had to act quickly under conditions of extreme duress–to make educated judgments about what he should or should not have done. By contrast, there are plenty of ways in which ordinary, educated citizens can scrutinize the press coverage of this event, and scrutinize journalists’ simultaneously high-handed and incompetent analysis of the evidence as it’s trickled out. The latter place, I would argue, is where the real “focus” should be.

    One fact lost in the shuffle is how vague and uncertain the description of the shooter was: a white male wearing a ROTC uniform, burgundy shirt and black pants. The description came from a putative victim, and could easily have matched any number of people at the scene or nearby it. Undealt with but obvious facts: victims can be mistaken; victims can lie; victims can confabulate; putative victims may not be actual victims; and real-time descriptions of suspects can be extremely misleading. In our quest for spectator-level, retrospective certainties, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that the relevant issue is how participants ought to deal with real-time uncertainty under duress, and how spectators ought to judge the latter from afar. As long as spectators have a motivation for denigrating participants, and feel free to do so, crap reporting like this will remain par for the course. And mythology will continue to pass as fact.

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  4. The Scot Peterson-as-coward story now seems to be taking hold, with the added proviso that the newly-released audio and video supposedly “confirms” the claims being made about Peterson. Here is a story from today’s New York Times:

    The first thing I’d say is that I object to the idea of keying the video to a soundtrack of dramatic, anguished music. The video is about 30 minutes long, and has no sound. After all of the hoopla about releasing the video to feed our “right to know,” isn’t it the obligation of anyone exercising that right to view the video in its entirety, in its originally released form?

    Like all reporting on this subject, the reporter lays great emphasis on the retrospective “timeline” released by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. The article makes no attempt to deal with the obvious fact that the timeline is retrospective, and by definition wasn’t available to Peterson. How can people who need a timeline to make sense of an audio/video feed so cavalierly judge people who were in the events in real time without a timeline?

    Surveillance video released on Thursday showed that the only armed sheriff’s deputy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., remained outside during the Feb. 14 massacre at the school, taking cover behind a wall.

    The deputy failed to confront the gunman during the six-minute rampage, the video’s time stamps show, confirming the account of other law enforcement officers who raised questions about the response by the sheriff’s office almost immediately after the shooting.

    It’s one thing to say that Peterson “remained outside,” and another thing to say he “failed” to enter the building. The first claim involves a straightforward inference from what we see on the video. The second involves an argument involving Peterson’s violating a normative standard. No such argument appears in the article. So why does the reporter help herself to a conclusion for which she not only has no argument, but feels no need to produce one? It makes no sense, incidentally, to say that the video confirms “the account of other law enforcement officers who raised questions about the response by the sheriff’s office.” A question is not an “account,” and neither is a set of questions added together. Bottom line: “questions about the sheriff’s office’s response” is very far from an “account” or confirmation of Scot Peterson’s cowardice or failure.

    Sheriff Scott Israel said that the video showed the deputy doing “nothing” as the gunman killed 14 students and three educators, and wounded 17 more people. One wounded student remains in the hospital.

    “He never went in,” the sheriff said of Mr. Peterson in a news conference on Feb. 22. “There are no words,” said Sheriff Israel, who described himself as “devastated, sick to my stomach” after watching the video. Office policy requires deputies to try to confront a gunman as quickly as possible, without waiting for backup.

    The audio demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that Peterson was the primary source of information on the scene, and relayed that information to the sheriff’s dispatch. I can’t say whether that amounts to delinquency of duty or not, but it’s not “nothing.” Sheriff Israel may well be speaking hyperbolically, but I think we could reasonably ask whether this is a topic about which anyone should speak hyperbolically–especially in criticizing someone’s performance under duress after the event is over (when the person making the criticisms wasn’t at the event). As for “there are no words,” it seems to me that “coward” is a word, and that Israel used that word to describe Peterson, without being able to justify his use of it, at least to the public he was addressing.

    There are in fact many words for what Israel seems to be doing, namely: deflecting, scapegoating, rushing to judgment, appealing to emotions, and throwing a colleague under the bus. If Israel was “sick to his stomach” while watching the video, I’d suggest taking some Pepto-Bismol to settle his stomach, and watching it again in a more impartial frame of mind.

    Sheriff Israel later defended his “amazing leadership,” despite Mr. Peterson’s inaction and other questionable decisions by his command staff, which set up a perimeter around the school before it was clear that the shooting was over, instead of moving in on the gunman.

    This passage makes it seem as though the officers knew the gunman’s location. The whole point of setting up the perimeter was that they didn’t know it. If setting up the perimeter was “questionable,” how much more questionable is reporting that upgrades real-time uncertainties into retrospective certainties?

    Mr. Peterson was suspended and then resigned his post. In a statement released by his lawyer, he said that he thought the gunfire originated from outside the building, and reacted accordingly by waiting for the suspect there. But a detailed timeline based on radio dispatches and surveillance footage, released last week by the sheriff’s office, suggested that he came to believe the shots might be coming from inside.

    In one of his first communications, he said, “Be advised we have possible, could be firecrackers, I think we have shots fired, possible shots fired by the 1200 building.” Later, he said, “We also heard it’s by— inside the 1200 building.”

    The second sentence of the first paragraph of this passage is written as though it functioned as a rebuttal to the first, but if so, it fails. One preliminary question is whether news reporting should really be written as though in mimicry of a legal brief, but put that aside; the demand for reporting-rather-than-quasi-legal-advoacy appears to be a lost cause. In any case, to repeat what I’ve said over and over: a “detailed timeline” cannot capture the state of knowledge or mind of a person who was at the scene in real time. The radio dispatches and surveillance footage do not conclusively demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt that Peterson believed that the gunfire was coming from inside the school building; they might furnish the materials for such a demonstration, but the dispatches and footage don’t by themselves lead to any self-evident conclusion on the matter.

    It’s pathetic, then, for the reporter to suggest (as she clearly does) that a “suggestion” that the shots “might be coming from inside” somehow rebuts the claim that he thought they might have been coming from outside. To think that shots might be coming from inside is obviously compatible with thinking that they might be coming from outside–and vice versa. To write an article that fails to make this obvious, elementary, but crucial point is journalistic malfeasance.

    Indeed, the very claims that the reporter adduces to rebut Peterson end up doing the reverse. She quotes Peterson as saying that the shots were “fired by the 1200 building.” Elementary English: “by” does not mean “in.” It means “nearby,” which is compatible with “outside of”–which is what Peterson has been saying. The next quotation from Peterson hesitates between “by” and “inside.” But hesitating between “by” and “inside” doesn’t prove that you think that something is definitely happening inside. It proves that you think it might be happening inside, but might also be happening outside, and that you’re not sure which thing is happening. Obviously, evidence of Peterson’s uncertainty confirms Peterson’s account, not his critics’.

    The reporter simply ignores everything in the radio dispatches that suggested that some gunfire might have been taking place outside. An officer reports in the dispatches that he thought he heard shots in or near the football field. The football field is located outside of the 1200 building, not in it. Another officer, on reaching a building where the shooting was or had taken place, hesitates about the bullet holes he sees in the windows, suggesting that he’s not sure whether the rounds that broke the windows were fired from the inside-out or the outside-in. That doesn’t help the claim that Peterson was sure that the shooting was taking place inside the building. Given that some time elapsed between the initial shooting and the police response, it was also reasonable to believe that the gunman had escaped from the building with other students (as actually happened). In that case, going inside the building would have allowed him to escape. So it wasn’t entirely unreasonable or cowardly to have stayed outside the building rather than impulsively rushing in. It is simply amazing that none of these obvious facts finds its way into the article, even as suggestions about plausible possibilities or hypotheses.

    Mr. Peterson also told other law enforcement officers who raced to the school to stay outside. Coral Springs officers, the first to arrive on the scene, pushed into the building anyway. By then, the gunman had already fled.

    Gee. Is it possible that Peterson told them to stay outside precisely to avoid that from happening?

    Coral Springs police radio recordings released on Wednesday suggest that Mr. Peterson failed to give clear information to the first arriving officers about where the shooting had taken place. Officer Tim Burton is heard to say that he had his rifle and was standing outside the building with Mr. Peterson, “getting info.” But what was relayed on the radio was that the gunman might have been spotted outside in a parking lot.

    “We don’t know where he’s at,” an exasperated officer said on radio.

    I find this passage incredible. I’ve stressed over and over that a shooting scene is a scene of radical uncertainty. Here we have a passage that gives the reader direct evidence of this uncertainty; staring t hose facts directly in the face, the reporter then blames the facts on Peterson. Peterson, we’re told, “failed to give clear information” to the police dispatcher (!). Could it be that Peterson “failed to give clear information” because the information was itself unclear? If information is unclear–more precisely, if it’s not clear what is happening at an event–is one’s inability to clarify it on the spot in the midst of gunfire fairly described as a failure of any kind? Hardly the most obvious thing in the world, except to journalists–journalists who themselves seem unable to give clear accountings of the facts weeks after they’ve happened.

    If Officer Burton was standing by Peterson “getting info,” couldn’t that indicate that the two of them lacked the “info” they needed? “But what was relayed on the radio was that the gunman might have been spotted in a parking lot.” Just an FYI: the parking lot was outside the building, and the gunman had a gun. So how would rushing into the building have helped? If one officer says, exasperatedly, that he doesn’t know where the shooter is, how could that lack of knowledge entail that Peterson knew exactly where he was? Yes, maybe Peterson knew what the officer didn’t know. But maybe, like the officer, he didn’t know. The reporter fails to supply the evidence to differentiate the two cases, but somehow suggests or insinuates that the first must have been the case.

    Shouldn’t it be obvious to any normal human being that if a gunman is in a large building, and you don’t know exactly where he is, your rushing into the unknown could result in just as catastrophic a result as your not doing so? If you then “fail” to enter a building under such circumstances, how obvious is it that what you’ve done is “cowardly” or “disgraceful” as opposed to being a gamble that failed, or a gamble that appears to be somewhat incompatible (maybe) with some office protocol written with the proviso that you should use your judgment on the scene? (It’s significant, incidentally, that the protocol is mentioned but not quoted in full.)

    The radio dispatches show that the police knew quickly that they were looking for a white male wearing a burgundy Junior R.O.T.C. shirt. Officers described coming across bodies, bleeding students and bullet-pocked windows.

    No indication here that more than one person in the school fit this description.

    Ultimately, the criticisms being made of Peterson concern how quickly he made the inferences he made. The demand seems to be that he should more quickly have reached the conclusion that the only thing that mattered was the gunfire coming from inside the building. He should therefore have dismissed all other doubts and considerations and rushed in–in just the way that the first responders so heroically did at the World Trade Center on 9/11, when they all rushed into the building, and hundreds of them were killed in reward for their “heroic self-sacrifice.” We might as well ask: why didn’t Scot Peterson do what Jesus would have done if Jesus was a cop? Or at least: why didn’t he do as the defenders of Stalingrad did when the Nazis invaded?

    Lost in the shuffle is this possibility: maybe it’s just stupid to expect cops to rush into the unknown when doing so could mean their lives. Maybe our fantasy-standard of heroism is a source of stupidity rather than a normative standard for virtue. Maybe in cases of this sort we should expect that if a gunman finds his way into a school and starts shooting, lots of people in the building are just going to have to die before the gunman can be apprehended. And maybe it’s perfectly legitimate for people on the scene to put considerations of their own safety in the balance with the safety of the people they’re paid to protect. Meanwhile, I can only shake my head at the intensity of the desire to wreck someone’s life and reputation by a bunch of half-informed Monday night quarterbackers. But c’est la vie. And death, apparently.

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