The chief law enforcement officer responsible for safety at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has become an unlikely political lightning rod two weeks after a mass shooting there claimed 17 lives, with his department coming under intense scrutiny for its handling of the attack.
Republican lawmakers have called for Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel to be suspended from his job for his department’s failure to follow up on warnings about the alleged shooter and its delayed response to the school on Feb. 14 after gunfire was reported. Gov. Rick Scott (R) has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to open a review of the sheriff’s performance. And new scrutiny has been placed on the admitted failures of the Broward sheriff’s office in responding to a separate 2017 mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport.
Concerns about Israel’s leadership included a new account from the school resource officer who was the first to respond to the shooting. Former deputy Scot Peterson on Monday took issue with the sheriff’s description of his failure to confront the shooter during the attack, denying Israel’s charge that he knew the gunman was inside and instead took up a defensive position while students and teachers were killed.
In a statement released by his lawyer, Peterson said he “heard gunshots but believed that those gunshots were originating from outside of any of the buildings on the school campus.”
President Trump called Peterson — who retired after Israel suspended him — a “coward” on Monday. Both Israel and Trump have said they would have acted differently in Peterson’s shoes. “I really believe I’d run in there,” said Trump, “even if I didn’t have a weapon.” The Broward sheriff’s office declined to comment on Peterson’s account.
The attacks on Israel come at a politically tumultuous moment in Florida, as Republican lawmakers move forward with new gun-control proposals, including an increase in the minimum age for the purchase of all guns to 21, that are opposed by the National Rifle Association.
The gun rights lobby has highlighted the failures of law enforcement in its response to the shooting, arguing that there were many missed red flags that could have prevented it. Both the FBI and local law enforcement — including Israel’s office — were told before the attack that the alleged shooter, Nikolas Cruz, posed a danger to schools. In the months before the shooting, callers urged officials to investigate, saying that Cruz was unstable, had weapons, and was a real threat. Though Cruz was well-known to law enforcement, he had never been arrested and there was no known effort to remove his guns.
Peterson’s failure to enter the high school building during the attack played a central role in a letter sent Sunday by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a likely Republican candidate for governor, calling for Israel’s immediate suspension for “incompetence and neglect of duty.”
“Sheriff Israel failed to maintain a culture of alertness, vigilance and thoroughness among his deputies,” Corcoran wrote in a letter signed by 73 other Republican members of the Florida House. “As a result of Sheriff Israel’s failures, students and teachers died.”
Israel has publicly refused calls for his resignation. “I can only take responsibility for what I knew about,” Israel said Sunday in an interview with CNN. “I’ve given amazing leadership to this agency.”
Some believe political considerations could be a factor in the criticism of Israel, who is publicly elected to serve as sheriff in Broward County, which has nearly 2 million residents and is Florida’s second-most-populous county.
“The sheriff is a big Democratic vote-getter in the most liberal county in the state,” said Republican political strategist Roger Stone, a longtime associate of Trump who worked with Israel in his most recent campaign for sheriff. “The speaker is running for governor. There are many people in the Republican base who are upset with the sheriff. This is getting partisanized to some extent.”
The scrutiny represents a whiplash turnabout for Israel, who played an unusually public role in comforting the community and rallying a bipartisan legislative response immediately after the attack. He spoke with Corcoran and other legislative leaders during tours of the school in the days after the shooting.
At a CNN town hall last week, Israel praised the surviving students for their public activism to prevent future mass shootings, encouraging their efforts to push what he called “sensible gun control laws.”
“I’m an honest sheriff. Honesty means when you get it right we talk about that and when we are not successful we talk about that,” Israel said to students before the town hall on Feb. 21. “My generation, we did not get it done. You will get it done.”
This is Israel’s second time leading the response to a mass shooting in as many years. The Parkland massacre came just 13 months after a passenger landed at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, took a gun from his checked bag and killed five people.
An independent review of the response found that although the shooter ran out of ammunition and surrendered to a deputy within 80 seconds, personnel at the department’s incident command center lacked a clear understanding of who was making decisions. The confusion contributed to a haphazard second evacuation attributed to rumors of a second shooter; some airport patrons were injured and airport operations were crippled for several hours.
Israel praised his department’s response to the airport shooting despite the criticism, similar to how he has addressed the initial response to his department’s handling of the school shooting.
Shortly after concerns began to arise about the school shooting, Israel attempted to begin an independent review. He contacted Chuck Wexler, head of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, and announced on CNN on Sunday that the former Boston police official would lead the review.
The idea was quickly overtaken by politicians in Tallahassee. Wexler received a second call from Israel a day later. The sheriff told Wexler that he had spoken with Scott, who was directing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct the investigation instead.
“We’re out of it,” Wexler said in an interview Monday. “I think it will be interesting to see how this turns out now, because FDLE reports to the governor.”
Steve Geller, a Broward County commissioner, said he is confident FDLE will conduct a fair investigation but said calls for Israel to resign stink of politics. “I am strongly opposed to the idea of ‘let’s hang him now and determine later if he did anything wrong,’ ” Geller said.
With Israel’s combative comments toward the NRA, Wexler also said it’s becoming hard to separate accountability and politics. “I can’t recall a situation like this ever, where a police chief has taken on the NRA” after a mass shooting, Wexler said.
Democratic lawmakers have not yet joined the call for Israel to be suspended, and Israel has been praised widely by local officials for his response.
“Resignations and all that isn’t going to make our children safer. Only legislation is going to do that,” said state Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D) of Broward County.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers also are pushing forward with legislation to authorize a separate fact-finding commission with subpoena power to investigate, among other elements, “any failures in interactions with perpetrators preceding mass violence incidents.” That body, which is likely to be enacted into law in the next two weeks, would be required to issue a public report by January 2019.
A former Republican born in New York, Israel started working in law enforcement in Fort Lauderdale in 1979. After serving a stint as a SWAT commander, he first won election as a Democrat in 2012, and easily won reelection in 2016. He oversees a department of 6,000 employees with an annual budget of $730 million.
Michael A. Adkinson Jr., president of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said Israel would just have to take the heat for some of the public outrage for now. “He is the public face, the most visible person,” he said. “People want to know the answers. Any time a child dies, somebody has failed. We’ve failed as a society any time a child dies.”
After-action assessments are common following mass shootings, and such reports often highlight things law enforcement officials could have done differently before and during these attacks.
“Everyone just needs to remember, that entire community, including those first responders, are all victims, and they’re going to live with this for the rest of their lives, and it’s very painful,” said Daniel J. Oates, the Miami Beach police chief who served the same role in Aurora, Colo., during the 2012 mass shooting there. “Everyone’s going to ask themselves, could I have done something differently?”
Michael Udine, a former mayor of Parkland whose daughter and niece attend Stoneman Douglas, said he thinks someone with national prominence should lead the investigation, he said.
“My daughter had just left, and my niece was hiding down the hall, so this is personal for me. All of these agencies are filled with very good people, but they’re not going to get to the bottom of what they themselves did wrong — they’re going to be covering their backsides,” said Udine, a Broward commissioner. “Every branch of government and law enforcement failed these kids and failed this community, and what’s needed now is bigger than any one politician or any one law enforcement officer. It’s bigger than that.”
Lori Rozsa, in Parkland, Fla., contributed to this report.