The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida massacre: Broward Sheriff Scott Israel’s plea for gun control

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks at a news conference near Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Thursday. At right is Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). (Giorgio Viera/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

On Wednesday evening, as the country picked through the wreckage of another mass shooting, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, flanked by a Republican governor with an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, made a pitch for gun control.

“I’ve said this time and time again,” Israel began. “While the people who are victims of mental health illnesses in this country are being treated, in the opinion of this sheriff, they should not be able to buy, surround themselves with, purchase or carry a handgun. Those two things don’t mix.”

As mild as the proposal sounded, coming from a top law enforcement figure in one of the country’s most gun-friendly states, the comments put Israel outside the norm. But this was not Israel’s first time in the national spotlight after random violence. Nor was it the first time the sheriff had ventured into the stormy waters of the national gun debate.

In January 2017, a gunman opened fire at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, killing five and wounding 35 others. It was a crime that brushed against Israel’s own family — his sister-in-law was at the airport during the attack. Afterward, the Broward sheriff publicly spoke about sensible gun policy as a tool to prevent mass violence.

After Wednesday’s rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the school that Israel’s own triplets once attended, the sheriff promised again to be a vocal advocate on solutions for gun violence.

“I’m going to be very animated about what I think this country can do to possibly prevent these tragedies in the future,” the sheriff said Thursday morning at a news conference.

Israel can afford to be an outspoken voice on the national stage, because he safely sits on a high perch in South Florida. In Broward, Florida’s second largest county, politics are entwined with the top law enforcement job. The county is a balkanized stitch of small municipalities, and the sheriff is arguably the area’s most powerful elected countywide official.

Not only does the Broward County sheriff run the largest fully accredited sheriff’s office in the country, with nearly 6,000 employees and an annual budget of $730 million, but the position also has tremendous political sway — plus a colorful history of dirty politics, big personalities and corruption.

Television viewers can thank a past Broward sheriff for “Cops,” the television show. Another sheriff, who held the office for a decade, resigned in 2007 after pleading guilty to tax evasion and mail fraud charges. The last two contested sheriff elections featured the campaign shenanigans of Roger Stone, the notorious Republican political operative. In 2008, then-Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti used Stone to fend off a challenge by a small-town police chief — Scott Israel, the Sun-Sentinel reported.

When Israel ran again against Lamberti in 2012, Stone switched teams to lead the charge against the incumbent. Israel won.

Israel comes to law enforcement through his family. He was raised in New York City, where his father was a homicide detective with the New York Police Department, the Miami Herald reported in a 2017 profile. On a visit to Florida in 1979, Israel on a whim filed out an application with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. By the mid-1980s he was working as a narcotics detective.

Broward was in the midst of the crack era, with the drug surging through the county, thanks to a pipeline of cocaine hitting South Florida from South America.

Law enforcement in the area met the mandate of the drug war with creative zest, particularly Israel’s precursor at the time, Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro. Under the sheriff’s orders, the office manufactured its own crack cocaine for officers who posed as dealers and then arrested buyers, a practice that was controversial even within law enforcement circles.

“I never heard of that in my life before,” a Drug Enforcement Administration official told the Sun-Sentinel in 1989. Navarro — who also made international headlines when he brought obscenity charges against hip-hop legends 2 Live Crew — doubled down on the publicity his department’s aggressive tactics attracted in 1988, when he invited camera crews to follow his deputies. The footage became “Cops.”

The Fort Lauderdale police department made its own contribution to drug war lore in 1985, when the department formed an aggressive special unit called the Raiders to go after drug pushers.  The team was effective — and feared — in the city’s predominantly black northwest corner, sparking complaints of excessive force and unfair treatment. Residents of the same area still refer to police as raiders, a lingering relic of the drug war’s impact. According to the Sun-Sentinel, Israel served on the squad.

Israel rose through the ranks, eventually heading the SWAT team, before leaving in 2004 to take over as police chief of a nearby town. In 2007, Israel switched his party affiliation to Democrat to run for county sheriff. After winning a primary, he faced incumbent Lamberti and felt the brunt of Roger Stone’s personal attacks. The political operative told the Sun-Sentinel that Israel was “an unqualified punk, a racist and a thief.”

According to Stone, he later became disillusioned with Lamberti after the sheriff’s office was implicated in a scandal involving a local Ponzi scammer named Scott Rothstein.

“I realized I had done a great injustice to Scott Israel,” Stone said. “I sought him out and persuaded him to run again. I handled his second campaign pro bono — taking not a dime.”

In 2012, Israel expressed no qualms about his adviser’s tactics, which included a pro-Israel news website called the Broward Bugle. “I’m a cop. I’m not a politician,” Israel said at the time. “I leave the tactics to the pros. Roger Stone wouldn’t tell me how to direct the SWAT team . . . and I wouldn’t tell him how to consult on campaigns.”

After his election, Israel put three Stone associates on the sheriff’s office payroll — a move that caused concern among critics. Others inside the courthouse were worried about having a veteran of the drug war’s high season in the county’s top law enforcement seat. “I felt great trepidation when Scott was elected because I knew where he came from and what law enforcement was about in the ’70s and ’80s,” Howard Finkelstein, the Broward public defender, told the Miami Herald last year.

Those concerns were not shared by the majority of county voters. Israel has received high marks for his work in the county, and he easily won reelection in 2016.

In office, he has been particularly outspoken about gun policy. In 2013, the Florida Sheriffs Association released a statement supporting the state’s stand-your-ground law following the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Israel, however, broke from his fellow law enforcers, advocating for a narrower version of the law.

“The stand-your-ground law effectively tied the hands of the law enforcement investigation in George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — and it will continue to do so until this law is fixed,” he wrote in a commentary for the Sun-Sentinel.

Israel has been equally vocal about other control measures, particularly with individuals suffering from mental disabilities.

“How many more innocent lives must perish before our legislators pass meaningful and common sense gun legislation?” he wrote in 2017. “How many more tragic attacks like those at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Sandy Hook Elementary and the Pulse nightclub need to occur before rational thought prevails?”

This post has been updated. 

More from Morning Mix:

They shared their lives on YouTube. Then an obsessed fan came calling — with a gun.