Broward Sheriff Scott Israel tells staff he’s being suspended over Parkland response
BY JULIE K. BROWN
The Miami Herald
It appears that Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel is preparing to pack it in, for now.
The two-term sheriff, the object of fierce criticism over BSO’s handling of the Parkland massacre, told his top commanders that he will be removed from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis, sources told the Miami Herald.
DeSantis, who was sworn in Tuesday morning, had not made a formal announcement of a possible suspension. Israel’s discussions with staff about his ouster were first reported by Miami New Times.
Stuart N. Kaplan, one of Israel’s lawyers, said Israel was working at his office at the public safety building in Fort Lauderdale.
“The governor has not said anything to us, directly or indirectly, as to whether or not the sheriff is going to be suspended,’’ Kaplan said. “He is working and continues to serve the citizens of Broward County.’’
But Jeff Bell, BSO’s union chief, said Israel told his staff on Monday that his ouster was inevitable.
“We know that he is telling everyone at the public safety building that he is going to be gone,’’ said Bell, who was at DeSantis’ swearing-in ceremony in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
Several candidates have been mentioned as possible replacements, including former Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, a Republican like DeSantis. But Bell would not indicate whether the union was backing anyone.
“What I will say is we want someone who will remove politics out of police work and commit to protecting the citizens and our children in the schools,’’ Bell said.
There were unconfirmed reports that Israel’s undersheriff, Steve Kinsey, had resigned. The sheriff’s communications office did not respond to requests for comment.
Israel, 62 — a 30-year law enforcement veteran — has vowed to fight any effort to strip him of his office. He maintains that while mistakes were made in responding to the rampage, they were not serious enough to warrant his suspension or removal from office.
Israel has long defended his agency’s actions on Feb. 14, 2018, when 17 people — 14 of them students — were slain by a gunman in what is considered the worst mass high school shooting in U.S. history.
Gun rights advocates and conservatives applauded Israel’s possible suspension on social media on Tuesday. Israel had been harshly criticized by the NRA and other groups after articulating his position in favor of gun regulations, making him somewhat of a political outlier in Florida, which pioneered “stand-your-ground” laws and other gun-friendly legislation.
“If true, it would be FANTASTIC news,’’ said Dana Loesch, NRA spokeswoman, on Facebook.
A state panel investigating the massacre released a 458-page report last week that detailed how the killer, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was able to shoot so many victims inside the freshman building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
The committee blamed security breakdowns and a lack of training on the part of Broward sheriff’s deputies, some of whom took cover outside the building instead of rushing into the school to confront the shooter, as officers from neighboring Coral Springs did. The report listed a number of other failures by BSO and the Broward school district. Those other BSO problems included outdated, malfunctioning radios, which prevented rescuers from responding more quickly and possibly saving lives, the report said.
After randomly shooting inside the building — without entering a single classroom — Cruz was able to escape the school grounds by blending in with fleeing students. Cruz, who had a history of emotional problems and disciplinary issues documented by the school district, was apprehended by officers one hour and 16 minutes after the first shots were fired. He now faces 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 of attempted murder and could receive the death penalty.
Early on, Israel proclaimed his agency’s handling of the tragedy a success, and was praised by President Donald Trump.
“Mr. President, these are the leaders,’’ Israel said, pointing to members of his command staff. “They led SWAT teams; they led staging areas; they led command posts. These are the leaders who led the first responders for police and fire, our deputies who were able do the amazing things we did in Broward County.’’
But Israel’s portrait of heroism was obliterated when it was learned that the school’s assigned sheriff’s deputy, Scot Peterson, took cover outside rather than run toward the building as the shots were being fired. Later, bodycam video showed another deputy, in leisurely fashion, sorting through his trunk for his bulletproof vest and then crouching behind his car for several minutes as shots were heard.
In public statements, Israel described his leadership as exceptional, and claimed he was being used as a scapegoat, as other agencies — including the FBI — had been warned about Cruz’s violent, erratic behavior.
The FBI received two tips about Cruz in the six months before the attack, including one from someone who knew him well and believed he was capable of murdering teachers and students. The FBI never followed through by investigating.
When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Israel whether he would have done anything differently that may have changed the outcome, the sheriff recited a flip rhyme: “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.”
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel takes the microphone at a CNN town hall meeting on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre, where he received cheers for ‘calling B.S.’ on the NRA. In the days and weeks that followed, the performance of his deputies at Parkland came under increased scrutiny.
Michael Laughlin Sun Sentinel
His comments prompted a public outcry that led the victims’ families, politicians and the sheriff’s union to question whether he was fit for his office.
Florida’s governor can suspend a sheriff — as well as other public officials — for a number of reasons, including criminal activity, neglect of duty and incompetence. But should that happen, Israel will request a trial before the Florida Senate to fight it, his lawyer said.
Kaplan said Israel would respect the governor’s decision and step down in the interim, even though he believes any suspension would be politically driven. DeSantis had said during his campaign that he would likely suspend Israel.
“I’m not sure his decision is being made on merit or on fact — or is he just now concerned about following through on a campaign promise that is politically motivated. Scott Israel has never wavered that the school district and school children and all members of the community are safe,” Kaplan said. “There is a false insinuation on the part of the public — a feeling that BSO is somehow a better agency just because Scott Israel has been removed.’’
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting a criminal investigation into the response to the attack.
The 15-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas public safety commission’s report, approved unanimously last week, noted that long after the mass shooting, key people involved in the incident, including sheriff’s deputies and high school assistant principals, provided investigators with accounts that contradicted the evidence, including surveillance video, leading the panel to believe they were either incompetent or untruthful.
The commission found that a policy modification by Israel, changing an instruction that deputies “shall” confront active shooters to deputies “may” do so, may have contributed to BSO’s much-criticized response. The panel also found that the agency’s active shooter training was inadequate.
But the commission did not offer an opinion on whether the sheriff — or the school superintendent, Robert Runcie — should be removed or resign.
Broward Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel speak during a news conference at the Broward Sheriff’s Office shooting range at Markham Park Monday morning, July 30, 2018. Both have come under sharp criticism in the wake of the Parkland massacre.
“At the end of the day, the governor can suspend and has the power to suspend public officials for almost any reason — whether it’s malfeasance, incompetence or neglect of duty — all that is in the eye of the beholder,’’ said Robert Jarvis, professor of law at Nova Southeastern University, and author of “Out of the Muck: A History of the Broward Sheriff’s Office.’’
“Presumably, the Senate would go along with DeSantis because the Senate is Republican and would not want to embarrass a very new governor from their own political party.’’
State Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Broward, questioned the propriety of suspending the sheriff under the current circumstances.
“I think there are some criticisms of Sheriff Israel’s department that are fair, but I don’t know that it rises to the level of removal from office by the governor. I think that should be a decision that the voters of Broward County should be able to make,” he said.
Farmer added that he has asked his legislative staff to research whether DeSantis has legal justification to remove someone on the grounds that “you just don’t think he did a good enough job.”
Jarvis said governors have suspended sheriffs twice in Broward’s history: in 1922 and 1942.
But it’s difficult to make the suspension stick. In 1942, Sheriff Walter R. Clark was suspended by then Gov. Spessard Holland for failing to take action against illegal gambling operators. Clark, however, was reinstated by the Senate. And the lawman suspended in 1922, Aden W. Turner — Broward’s first sheriff — was removed only to be returned to office by voters six years later.
“Obviously, there were things that were done wrong here,’’ Jarvis said. “But shouldn’t it be the voters of Broward County to decide whether or not they want Israel in power? That’s always the problem when the governor suspends and the Senate then takes power away from local voters.’’