FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP/Gray News) — New Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel on Friday over his handling of February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The Republican governor flew to Fort Lauderdale three days after taking office to remove the Democratic sheriff, appointing a former police sergeant to serve as sheriff. Gregory Tony, 40, worked for Coral Springs police for 12 years before leaving in 2016 to start a company specializing in active-shooter training. He is Broward's first African-American sheriff.
DeSantis' office issued a statement saying, “Sheriff Israel has repeatedly failed and has demonstrated a pattern of poor leadership. He failed to protect Floridians and visitors during the tragic Fort Lauderdale International Airport shooting in 2017. He failed in his duties to keep our families and children safe during the devastating shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14, 2018. These incidents demonstrate Sheriff’s Israel’s repeated incompetence and neglect of duty.”
The statement added, "The families of the victims deserve accountability."
Under Florida law, the governor can suspend elected officials for criminal activity, misfeasance, incompetence or neglect of duty. Israel intends to challenge the suspension to the state Senate, which will conduct a trial and then remove or reinstate him. Israel’s lawyer, Stuart Kaplan, said this week the sheriff did nothing warranting removal and his future should be left to Broward voters in the 2020 election. Israel had been sheriff six years.
Last April, DeSantis said he would have suspended Israel if he were governor but he backed off later in the campaign, saying only that he would hold officeholders accountable. DeSantis' Republican predecessor, now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, refused to suspend Israel, saying he wanted to wait until investigations into the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 dead were complete before deciding.
Israel condemned the governor’s action, calling it “a massive political power grab.”
“Today he merely fulfilled a campaign promise. This was about politics, not Parkland,” Israel said. “The office of sheriff should be controlled by the voters of Broward County.”
Israel said he would fight the suspension in the courts and the Florida legislature.
“There was no wrongdoing on my part. I served the county honorably,” he said.
Some parents of Stoneman Douglas victims and conservative state lawmakers began pushing for Israel's ouster shortly after the shooting when it was revealed that the Broward deputy assigned to guard the school, Scot Peterson, had not gone into the building to confront the shooter and his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, but took cover outside.
Other Broward deputies who arrived during the shooting also didn't enter, even while officers from neighboring Coral Springs — Tony's former department — charged inside. Parents also bashed Israel for saying during a nationally broadcast interview he had provided "amazing leadership" in the shooting's aftermath.
"Nothing, nothing, nothing will bring my kid or 16 others back, but there was failure everywhere you turned," said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime died in the shooting. "And after that failure, there was just a refusal to take accountability and responsibility. I wish him well but it was time for a change."
The heat increased after it was learned the sheriff's office received a call in 2016 and another in 2017 warning that suspect Nikolas Cruz, now 20, was a potential school shooter but deputies disregarded them. Deputies also had about 20 contacts with Cruz as a juvenile — mostly over arguments with his now-deceased mother. Israel has said none of those contacts warranted an arrest — a conclusion law enforcement members of the state commission investigating the shooting have agreed with.
But commissioners in their report finalized last week criticized Israel for earlier changing his office's policy to say deputies "may" confront active shooters instead of "shall," giving deputies an excuse for not charging the school. Israel told them he didn't want deputies to think they had to conduct suicide missions.
Commissioners also concluded that the department's active shooter training had not been effective. Still, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission's chairman, and other law enforcement officials on the panel have said they didn't think Israel should be suspended.
Israel, 62, was elected sheriff in 2012 after a long career in law enforcement, ousting the Republican incumbent on his second attempt in the overwhelmingly Democratic county. After taking office, Israel, a Republican until changing parties shortly before running in 2008, received criticism over his friendship with notorious GOP operative Roger Stone, for promoting Stone's inexperienced stepson to detective and for accepting gifts from a wealthy benefactor.
However, community leaders praised his work with the homeless, minority and gay communities. Violent crime went down, and he easily won re-election in 2016 to oversee the county's 2,800 deputies.
Israel for years has called for tougher gun laws in Florida, a stance that created critics long before the school shooting.
Shortly after Israel’s second term began, a man retrieved a handgun from his luggage at Fort Lauderdale’s airport and opened fire, killing five. While Israel’s deputies apprehended him within 72 seconds, the draft of a county report said Israel and others didn’t control the chaos, leaving passengers huddled in fear for hours. He criticized the draft, and the final version was less harsh — but many of the same communications problems that plagued the airport response repeated at Stoneman Douglas.