Florida governor suspends Sheriff Scott Israel over Parkland massacre response

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks to CNN about the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on February 25, 2018.

PARKLAND, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday suspended embattled Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, blaming him for failures in the response to the Parkland school shooting.

The new governor criticized the lawman’s handling of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“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,” DeSantis said in a statement. “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 families of the victims deserve accountability.”

The governor issued an executive order and said he is appointing retired Coral Springs Police Sgt. Gregory Tony to serve as sheriff.

Israel said he “whole-heartedly reject the statements in the governor’s executive order as lacking both legal merit and a valid, factual basis. There was no wrongdoing on my part. I served the county honorably.”

“I intend to vigorously fight this unjustified suspension both in court and before the Florida Senate,” Israel said. “This was about politics, not about Parkland.”

Israel said DeSantis vowed to remove him as sheriff when he was campaigning for governor.

“Today, he merely fulfilled a campaign promise,” Israel said.

Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, said his organization applauds DeSantis’ decision.

“True leaders like Governor DeSantis are willing to make the tough decisions that may not always be the most popular choices,” Bell said. “Scott Israel misused his authority and abused his public trust by politicizing the nation’s largest fully accredited Sheriff’s Office for his own political ambitions.”

Soon after the February 14 mass shooting, Israel faced criticism about his agency’s response, including calls for his resignation. A recent draft report by a public safety commission tasked with investigating the shooting found several failures and missteps, including among some of Israel’s deputies.

According to Florida statute, the governor has the power to suspend the sheriff for actions such as “misfeasance” and “neglect of duty” and may fill the office by appointment for the period of suspension. The actual power to remove the sheriff from office is in the hands of the state Senate.

According to the state Senate website, it makes “final dispositions” on whether to reinstate a suspended official or remove him from office.

Nikolas Cruz has confessed to being the gunman, and carrying out the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, his former school, according to court documents. The attack, which also left dozens injured, is one of the deadliest mass shootings in recent US history.

Eleven days after the massacre, more than 70 Republican representatives and Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran sent a letter to then-Gov. Rick Scott asking him to suspend the sheriff for what they called his “incompetence and neglect of duty.”

Israel said then he would not resign.

In April, Broward County sheriff’s deputies took a largely symbolic vote of no confidence against Israel, with Bell vowing to ask the governor to consider removing Israel. The sheriff said then the vote reflected only “a small number” of BSO employees and the union representing the vast majority of employees “solidly supports the leadership of this agency.”

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which is investigating the shooting, presented its initial report to state officials on January 2.

Some of the failures and missteps highlighted in the commission’s report ranged from unlocked and unmanned gates on the Parkland campus to an inadequate public-address system. The report also said former Deputy Scot Peterson, the school resource officer, was “derelict in his duty” and “failed to act consistent with his training and fled to a position of personal safety” during the mass shooting. Peterson instructed deputies to stay away from the building where the shootings took place, the draft said.

Several responding Broward sheriff’s deputies were either seen on camera or described as taking time to retrieve and put on ballistic vests as well as removing and replacing other equipment while shots were still being fired in the school, the report said.