Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel was suspended from office Friday by Florida’s new governor, a move that comes after nearly a year of intense criticism over how the sheriff’s office responded to a rampage inside a Parkland, Fla., high school.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who took office on Tuesday, traveled to Broward to announce his decision to remove Israel, a Democrat reelected to a second term in 2016. Israel became a lightning rod after revelations that one of his deputies failed to confront the shooter and that, long before the first shot was fired, the Broward Sheriff’s Office had repeated contacts with the former student charged with killing 17 people at the school.
In his executive order, DeSantis highlighted these and other details in explaining why he made the unusual decision to dismiss an elected official, stating that Israel “egregiously failed” in his role as the top law enforcement officer in Broward.
“The neglect of duty and the incompetence that was connected to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been well documented,” DeSantis said at a news conference, joined by relatives of some Parkland victims. “Suffice it to say that the massacre might never have happened had Broward had better leadership in the sheriff’s department.”
DeSantis’s executive order pointed to the findings of a state commission that investigated the Feb. 14, shooting in Parkland; his order also includes previous criticisms of how Israel’s office responded to a shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport in January 2017. The Parkland commission submitted a report singling out the Broward Sheriff’s Office for its policies on ongoing attacks, a lack of training and how it responded to the gunfire. The panel also found that multiple deputies, rather than one, failed to rush toward the attacker.
Israel pilloried DeSantis’s decision as “a massive political power grab by the governor” and vowed to fight the move in court and before the Florida Senate.
“I wholeheartedly reject the statements in the governor’s executive order as lacking both legal merit and a valid factual basis,” Israel said during a news conference after DeSantis’s order was released. “There was no wrongdoing on my part.”
He added: “This was about politics, not about Parkland.”
Israel’s attorney, Stuart Kaplan, said they were still determining their legal path forward and added that Israel planned to run again for sheriff in 2020.
Under the Florida constitution, the governor can suspend officials for reasons including “neglect of duty” and “incompetence.” DeSantis invoked both of those in his order, which says Israel is prohibited from receiving pay. To replace Israel, DeSantis selected Gregory Tony, who runs a firm that offers active-shooter training and is a retired police sergeant who worked in Coral Springs, a city that neighbors Parkland.
DeSantis’s decision to suspend Israel was widely expected, as he had said during the gubernatorial campaign that the sheriff should have been removed from office. With DeSantis taking office Tuesday, media reports began circulating in South Florida saying Israel had told people he expected to be suspended.
While mass attacks are often followed by reviews that reveal missteps or ominous warning signs, the Parkland shooting was remarkable for the sheer breadth of red flags preceding the massacre. Nikolas Cruz, the 20-year-old who police say confessed to the shooting, had come to the attention of local, state and federal officials again and again. Some of the warnings — including those made to the FBI and the Broward Sheriff’s Office — were explicit in labeling Cruz as a threat to attack a school. In Florida on Friday, DeSantis offered additional criticism for the FBI, calling its handling of the issue “a disgrace.”
None of the red flags stopped Cruz from buying weapons or carrying out the attack, officials said. After the shooting, Cruz dropped his weapon and blended in with fleeing students. Concerns about him were so well known, the state commission reported, that a student who encountered him at that time told him, “I’m surprised you weren’t the one who did this.”
Cruz’s attorneys acknowledge he was the shooter and have offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
After the shooting, Israel became the very public face of the law enforcement response to the carnage that horrified the country and prompted a sweeping new push for gun-control measures. He appeared at a CNN town hall one week after the attack to encourage new gun-control laws and spar with a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association.
But the next day, he was back on television, this time with a grim report: One of his deputies, assigned to police the school, had stayed outside while the shooting occurred and failed to confront the attacker. Scot Peterson, the deputy, said he did not know where the gunfire was coming from and resigned.
The state commission report bluntly described a string of lapses made by authorities, including school officials, the sheriff’s office and the FBI. The Broward Sheriff’s Office was described as having an “inadequate active assailant response policy,” an “abysmal response” by Peterson, “a failed response” by other officers and a “flawed unified command and control of the scene.”
While public anger fixated on Peterson, the state commission reported that “several deputies” did not properly respond to the shooting. Since the April 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado, it has become common law enforcement practice for officers to pursue attackers and eliminate the threat. But in Parkland, the commission said, several deputies were seen or described as taking too much time to put on their ballistic gear or preparing to go inside, “all while shots were being fired, or had been recently fired.” Others arrived on a nearby road, heard shots and remained there rather than going to find the shooter.
In response to the Parkland commission’s findings, Israel wrote in a letter last month that his office had opened internal investigations into the actions of two officers, updated its active-shooter policy and sent officers to get additional training.
“Be assured, the reforms adopted to date are not the end of this process,” he wrote.