Broward County

After Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel in spotlight

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks during a news conference at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday after a gunman opened fire in the baggage claim area.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks during a news conference at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Friday after a gunman opened fire in the baggage claim area. AP

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel was exercising in a Davie park when the message came over the dispatch system on his phone: There was a shooting at the airport.

His first thought: disbelief.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel talks with the media outside of Fort Lauderdale International Airport on Jan. 6, 2017.

“You hope it was sent in error,” Israel told the Miami Herald. “You read it again and hope it’s not Broward County. You start to digest it. You are angry. You pray.”

And then, Israel said, “a switch flips and you go from all of those emotions as a citizen to being the sheriff of Broward County and leading.”

Over the next several hours, Israel’s leadership was under a microscope, as he faced the biggest nightmare of his career: a shooting rampage at Terminal 2 of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywoood International which left five people dead, stranded thousands of terrified passengers and shut down one of the busiest airports in the nation. In less than 90 seconds, BSO had the suspect, Army National Guard veteran Esteban Santiago, in custody.

A married father of 20-year-old triplets, Israel said he didn’t have time in the moment to reflect on what it would have been like if his own children were there. (His sister-in-law was at another terminal at the time of the shooting, and at one point he spoke to her on the phone and told her that the tarmac, where police had moved many passengers, was safe.)

“I didn’t have the ability to do those things and allow those emotions to take place,” said Israel, who said a deputy drove him to the airport so he could work while enroute. “I was handling an active-shooter scene. I was the sheriff; we were talking about traffic, the SWAT team, an orderly clearance.”

Israel first went to the mobile command post outside the baggage claim area, where he met with FBI Special Agent in Charge George Piro. He went inside Terminal 2’s baggage claim, where the crime scene had been roped off and the bodies of the five victims were covered.

Upstairs in Terminal 2, Israel said he saw passengers starving for information and spoke with them before he met with the media.

“There was no loud speaker,” he said. “I got in the middle of hundreds of people and I shouted, ‘My name is Scott Israel. I am your sheriff.’ They all started gathering around.”

Video shows chaotic scene at baggage claim at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, including one shooting victim.

The shooting occurred around 12:55 p.m., but it wasn’t until hours after nightfall that passengers were allowed to leave. Thousands stood in lines waiting for buses to take them to Port Everglades to wait for rides. Hundreds of others slept on benches in a port terminal.

Israel said the reports of a second shooter around 2:30 p.m., which turned out to be unfounded, delayed the ability of law enforcement to declare the airport safe enough to bring in buses to release passengers.

“They would have been out hours and hours before, but they couldn’t get out without buses, and we couldn’t get buses in until the airport was safe,” he said.

Rise to sheriff

It has been a long path for 60-year-old Israel.

The top cop in Broward, who sports a New York accent and is the son of a New York City homicide detective, started his career when during a visit to Florida on a whim, he filled out an application to become a police officer.

Israel joined the Fort Lauderdale department in 1979 and worked narcotics at a time crime was rampant. Over the years he was the subject of 10 internal affairs complaints, mostly for excessive force, though he was cleared in all of them.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, then an assistant public defender, recalls butting heads with Israel in court.

“We would go to war, but Scott is a very competitive guy, an athlete. To us it was like a boxing match,” Finkelstein said. “We would beat the crap out of each other, shake hands, go on our way.”

While working in Fort Lauderdale, Israel met a waitress named Susan Galla at Franco and Vinny’s pizza shack. He asked a friend to pass along his number to her. Susan says she didn’t call him.

“He came in the next week saying, ‘I got all your messages,’ ” she said. “I kind of chuckled a little bit.”

They married a year later, and not long after, Susan gave birth to triplets. Israel was determined to spend as much time possible together as a family — even when that meant loading up three babies in car seats. On his days off, he took them to a community gym in Boca Raton where he would put them in a portable crib while he worked out.

“He would say, ‘OK, let’s all go to Publix today,’ ” his wife said. “I would say, ‘You go or I go.’ He would say, ‘No, we are going as a family.’ 

After rising to the rank of captain and serving as SWAT team commander starting in 1999, he was hired by North Bay Village as police chief in 2004.

Losing first election

In 2007 he changed his voter registration from Republican to Democrat to run for Broward sheriff. He won a bruising five-way Democratic primary, but lost to Republican Sheriff Al Lamberti in 2008.

He was devastated, but his wife says he moved forward quickly.

“I didn’t answer my cellphone for a week. Scott answered the minute he found out — he never shut down,” she said. “He was annoying me. I said, ‘Throw your cell phone in the lake.’ He said, ‘Susan, I lost, but don’t you think all the people that helped me, they lost too and they are devastated?’ 

Losing humbled Israel. He took Lamberti on again in 2012.

This time he won, taking over the $700 million, 6,000-person agency that operates the jail and provides law enforcement to many cities as well as the airport.

Finkelstein was worried about Israel becoming sheriff because Israel worked in Fort Lauderdale at a time when relations between the police and the African-American community were poor.

“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,” Finkelstein said. But after working in Broward with nine sheriffs, Finkelstein — traditionally the county’s loudest critic of law enforcement and politicians — came around on Israel. “I didn’t think I could be more pleasantly surprised how the sheriff has conducted himself.”

Finkelstein says Israel has embraced the African-American community and the philosophy that public safety is not just about arrests but giving some people a second chance, and cites the sheriff’s support for a program to give juveniles civil citations instead of jail time for non-violent offenses. He has also supported equipping his deputies with body cameras — a national push by minority communities in the wake of police shootings.

Israel’s strength has been outreach, including to the black and gay communities. On the night that same-sex marriage became legal, Israel attended three weddings of BSO workers.

West Park Mayor Eric Jones, an African-American and pastor at Koinonia Worship Center, says Israel is accessible even when it isn’t election time.

“If we have concerns, we call. He either comes or a representative comes, and then he will give us a call and find out if it was satisfactorily dealt with,” Jones said. “ I receive very few to any complaints as to officer abuse.” (Jones’ son, State Rep. Shevrin Jones, worked in community outreach at BSO in the past under Israel.)

Some of Israel’s positions have at times put him at odds with other sheriffs in Florida.

In 2013, when the Florida Sheriffs Association expressed support for the controversial Stand Your Ground law, Israel said he wanted legislative changes to more narrowly restrict the use of the law.

He has been criticized for some of his actions, including hiring campaign supporters and the failure to report gifts, a 2012 holiday yacht party and a 2013 Bahamas cruise thrown by a supporter following the 2012 election. The Florida Ethics Commission found probable cause but declined to take further action, citing his newness on the job.

Israel has repeatedly fought with the County Commission to get more money — one time in front of TV cameras after an inmate escaped from the courthouse last year. County officials said at the time that Israel’s comments were premature and that the commission had been increasing his budget.

Chip LaMarca, the lone Republican on the County Commission, praised BSO’s response to the shooting, but says Israel could improve relationships with some commissioners. (LaMarca had invited Israel to county GOP meetings before the sheriff’s party switch.)

When Israel has a relationship he considers bad blood, “he doesn’t do a good job fixing those,” he said.

Last year Israel won the Democratic primary and in November beat a little-known Republican to win with 72 percent of the vote. He received about 18,000 more votes in the county, a Democratic stronghold, than Hillary Clinton did.

Advocate for gun control

The mass shooting puts Israel in an unusual position: The shooting has given him a bully pulpit to speak about gun control, but he’s a Democrat, politically at odds with the Republican leaders in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

“All I’m going to do is speak my mind,” Israel said. “If I’m on an island, I’m on an island. I’m not going to worry about who is with me or who is not.”

Israel criticized a recent proposal by two state legislators to allow holders of permits to carry concealed firearms in airport passenger terminals.

“It’s bizarre and unsafe,” Israel said. “There are so many problems. If there is a gun fight in an airport, how would law enforcement know who are the good guys?”

He previously advocated for stricter gun control, calling for reinstatement of an assault-gun ban, closing the so-called “gun show loophole,” and fighting an “open carry” proposal. He has also advocated for more mental health treatment, including requiring healthcare workers to report threats to public safety.

The FBI is the lead investigator of the airport shooting, but Israel will face the task of helping Broward move forward.

In the face of tragedy, Israel said he has been heartened by the response of the passengers affected that day.

“There were so many people who were calm, patient and understanding and not complaining,” Israel said. “There were five people who were never going to get home to their families and that set the tone. I am very proud of the citizens I encountered.”

Special Agent in Charge George Piro said that investigators have found “no specific reason” why that the gunman chose Fort Lauderdale. Agents have not identified any “triggers” that spurred the attack.