It’s widely believed Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis will remove Broward Sheriff Scott Israel from office shortly after the Jan. 8 inauguration, likely before the one-year anniversary of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
As a candidate, DeSantis twice said that if he were governor, he would have suspended Israel for events around the school shooting. Asked about the sheriff during a WPLG Channel 10 interview last week, DeSantis said he first wanted to see a state commission’s report on the shooting. But from what he’s heard, “there’s a lot of really troubling facts.”
It’s a big deal for a governor to remove an elected sheriff, especially if the governor is a Republican and the sheriff is the most powerful Democrat in Florida’s most Democratic county.
We stood up for the sheriff in late February, when Republican lawmakers called for Gov. Rick Scott to suspend him “for incompetence and dereliction.” We did so again in April after the deputies’ union staged a vote of no confidence in him, largely because of pay raises. We’ve suggested all along that people hold their fire until more details are known.
But after seeing the damning details in the commission’s draft report — and Israel’s troubling testimony — we cannot encourage the governor-elect to wait and let voters decide the sheriff’s fate in 2020. We can only encourage DeSantis to replace Israel with a seasoned law enforcement professional with local familiarity, not a Tallahassee partisan who lacks relevant qualifications, as Gov. Rick Scott did in replacing Broward’s incompetent elections supervisor this month.
Israel flunked his big tests
In many ways, Israel has been a good sheriff over the past six years. Burglaries and violent crime are down. He’s taken stands against guns on campus, the Stand Your Ground law and people openly carrying guns. He’s made reluctant deputies wear body cameras and at least one non-lethal device — like a Taser or baton — on their belts. And he’s masterful at community relations, handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving, riding in the LGBTQ pride parade and attending services at diverse churches and temples.
Israel’s supporters say the only reason the sheriff finds himself in the political crosshairs is because he stood up to the NRA at a CNN Town Hall after the shooting, and had a terrible interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper.
But that’s not it at all.
The issue is public safety, the sheriff’s paramount duty. And on his two biggest tests — the mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas — Israel has come up short.
Worse, the sheriff fails to accept responsibility for things that have gone wrong, instead suggesting that things couldn’t have been better. If he fails to acknowledge that mistakes were made — not only by individuals, but by his command — how can we expect a better outcome next time?
After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, the sheriff argued that a general can’t be blamed if a single soldier fails to do his job. He was referring to School Resource Officer Scot Peterson, who failed to pursue the shooter after reporting “shots fired.” The commission’s report says Peterson waited 45 minutes to enter the school and warned others to stay away, too.
But Peterson was not alone. While a great many BSO deputies demonstrated bravery that day, far too many showed cowardice, hiding behind trees, cars and walls.
Besides Peterson, seven other deputies also heard the gunfire and failed to pursue the shooter, as best practices would dictate. During interviews with investigators, several noted BSO policy says they could pursue a shooter, but don’t have to.
Israel should be mortified to know a team of Coral Springs police officers blew by his deputies and entered the building where Nikolas Cruz had unleashed hell. A Sunrise police officer who raced to the scene said a BSO deputy told him: “Don’t go in.”
At a vigil the night after the shooting, the Sun Sentinel reported that the Coral Springs city manager had angrily confronted Israel, reportedly for taking credit for the response, even though his deputies remained outside the school. The sheriff characterized the exchange as “just two guys having a conversation.” We find the sheriff’s characterization not credible.
Lessons lost from airport shooting
BSO’s disastrous response at Stoneman Douglas is the second time in two years that Israel risked public safety on a massive scale. The first happened at the airport in January 2017, after a shooter killed five and injured six after retrieving his gun at baggage claim.
In that case, Esteban Santiago laid down after exhausting his ammunition and a BSO deputy who raced from the second floor had him in handcuffs within 72 seconds. Nevertheless, 12 hours of turmoil followed, with thousands of people fearing for their lives amid false alarms of “shots fired.”
A lawsuit alleges BSO deputies assigned to patrol baggage claim were attending a retirement party in a conference room. An after-action report criticized BSO’s lack of leadership in containing the scene, creating a centralized command and training on disaster drills.
Israel disputed the report, saying: “Everything was done excellently.” And when the Stoneman Douglas commission asked him about the airport, he similarly replied: “The command and control was exceptional, sir.”
If Israel refuses to recognize and accept responsibility for the chaos after the airport shooting, how can we be confident he will recognize and respond to BSO’s failures at Stoneman Douglas?
Remember what he said to CNN’s Tapper two weeks after the shooting, when Tapper noted the numerous complaints BSO had received about Cruz, including a caller who said he had threatened to shoot up a school.
“I have given amazing leadership to this agency,” Israel said.
“Amazing leadership?” Tapper replied. “You have listed 23 incidents before the shooting involving the shooter, and still nothing was done to keep guns out of his hands, to make sure that the school was protected, to make sure you were keeping an eye on him.”
In fairness, the law at the time — which the Florida Legislature changed in May — prohibited deputies from taking firearms away from someone considered dangerous. Also, the commission’s draft report says most of those 23 incidents did not warrant additional action. It doesn’t say which ones did. It only notes that BSO disciplined the deputy who failed to follow-up on the school-shooter tip.
Radio system also to blame
The report also blames the lack of a countywide 911 emergency dispatch system for contributing to the law enforcement chaos that day. Cell phone calls from inside the school went to Coral Springs, which transferred them to BSO. One terrified teacher was forced to wait while her call was transferred, then repeat her alarm about Cruz firing into doors. The recording of her call is described as “absolutely heartbreaking.”
As at the airport, the radio system grew overwhelmed and kept police agencies from communicating with one another, and commanders from communicating with police officers. They resorted to hand signals and “runners” carrying messages up and down the school’s stairwells.
The commission asked Israel why Broward allows such a dangerous communications system to continue. The sheriff said the nine-member county commission is not in his chain of command and he cannot tell them what to do. “You can certainly bring political pressure on your commission to do the right thing,” he was told in response.
Despite the radio system’s failures, the MSD commission report says it wasn’t overwhelmed when those eight BSO deputies had a chance to help those under attack. Thirty four people were shot that day. Seventeen died.
It’s human nature to avoid danger, but danger comes with the job in law enforcement. Like a Secret Service agent who promises to put a president’s life first, a deputy takes an oath to protect and serve. And on Sheriff Israel’s watch, BSO deputies violated their oath.
Israel’s troubling testimony
Israel’s November testimony before the MSD Commission offers little reason to expect a course change. Consider:
* When asked why he changed the active shooter policy to say deputies “may” not “shall” give pursuit, Israel said he wanted to give them discretion, not send them on a suicide mission. But as Polk Sheriff Grady Judd rightly noted, “Words matter. And according to your policy, he (Peterson) didn’t have to go in.” Israel failed to acknowledge the consequences of his policy, which made the public less safe. (BSO announced Sunday that the policy had been changed to require deputies to pursue an active shooter.)
* When asked about the active-shooter training BSO deputies received, Israel said: “We put them through active killer training every three years. That’s totally sufficient. .. We train well.” But the commission’s report says some BSO deputies didn’t remember having had active-shooter training in 10 or 20 years. Coral Springs, by contrast, provides active-shooter training every year and its officers “consistently praised their training as having prepared them for a proper response,” the report says.
* When asked why he chose Captain Jan Jordan to lead the force in Parkland, Israel said city officials asked him for three names, but he had no say in her selection. Israel’s response was disingenuous, since he’d given the city her name. (The report describes Jordan as overwhelmed, ineffective and in a dream-like state that day.)
* When asked why Coral Springs and Plantation refused to join Broward’s 911 emergency dispatch system, Israel suggested political, perhaps financial, reasons were to blame. He failed to mention the other big reason. The cities lacked confidence — with good reason — in BSO’s ability to timely answer calls and know their geography well enough to accurately dispatch people.
* When asked why BSO deputies in Parkland weren’t given standard-issue body cameras, Israel said the city, which contracts for extra services, wouldn’t pay extra for them. As Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley rightly noted, Parkland residents pay county taxes, too. Those deputies should have been given the same equipment given everyone else.
* When asked why BSO failed to rotate Peterson, who was an SRO at Stoneman Douglas for 10 years, Israel said Peterson had been a School Resource Officer of the Year and there was no reason to rotate him. The report says Peterson’s 28 years as an SRO contributed to his inadequate response because he’d not been exposed to “many high-risk, high-stress situations.” And it questions the supervision he received.
* When asked about the inordinate time it took a deputy to don his bullet-proof vest and retrieve a rifle from the trunk, Israel stepped back to tell the commission: “At this point, based on what I know, I don’t have any reason to believe that any member of our agency knew there was an active shooter.” How could the sheriff say that 10 months after the shooting? Certainly he knew that Peterson had reported “shots fired.” In that moment, he appeared clueless about the events at Stoneman Douglas.
In truth, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the MSD Commission, did Israel and our community no favors by asking the sheriff not to investigate the shooting, but wait for the commission’s report.
That said, Gualtieri made his request in June, four months after the massacre. By then, you’d think a determined leader with a sense of urgency would have been well on his way to understanding what happened and holding people accountable to ensure that such an utterly disorganized and mismanaged situation never occurs again.
The political calculation ahead
In an interview with Miami’s WTVJ Channel 6, Gualtieri said Israel’s conduct doesn’t rise to the level of misfeasance or malfeasance, the standard a governor must prove in removing an elected leader from office.
“There are some things that certainly everybody can learn from, but I don’t see anything that rises to that level, or even really close to that level,” Gualtieri said. “Just because your people are imperfect or in some cases wrong or in some cases negligent, or in some cases act improperly or do engage in malfeasance or misfeasance like Peterson, that doesn’t mean that the sheriff did.”
But Gualtieri is a sheriff and a brotherhood exists in law enforcement. It would be hard for him to recommend DeSantis remove Israel. For once that door opens, who knows who’s next?
If DeSantis suspends Israel, the sheriff could request a trial in the Senate, though it’s unlikely he’d prevail given that the Republican majority wants its new governor to be successful.
Israel’s best chance would be in court. Two years ago, the former board chair of Broward Health got his suspension by Gov. Rick Scott overturned. But the case against David DiPietro lacked substance. In our view, a case against Sheriff Israel would have merit.
The sheriff’s friends say there’s no supportable legal basis for removing him. They say Israel would emerge politically stronger and DeSantis would look politically weaker. And DeSantis would be wrong to pick a fight with the Florida Sheriffs Association, whose members are popular in the counties he won.
Perhaps. But DeSantis essentially made a campaign promise to suspend Israel. From what’s been reported, most Parkland parents believe the sheriff is incompetent and want him gone. And the governor-elect put some of those parents — and the head of the deputies’ union — on his transition team.
What we think
Like we said, it’s a big deal for a governor to remove a duly elected sheriff, especially one who continues to enjoy a good deal of community support, despite his failures.
But a community of our size is going to face another tragedy. It’s just a matter of where and when. And if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Given Sheriff Israel’s failure to learn from history — and his failures during our community’s most horrific events — we now stand with those who believe he should be removed and replaced.
Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, David Lyons and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.
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