Broward County

As Broward sheriff touts ‘amazing leadership,’ a low grumble builds in the ranks

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before the start of a CNN town hall meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before the start of a CNN town hall meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla. TNS

As the elected sheriff of Broward County, Scott Israel has been fond of self-promotion and found comfort among friends.

After he was first elected in 2012, he opened the Broward Sheriff’s Office pocketbooks to surround himself with campaign supporters. When he ran for reelection, he had his mug festooned on the facade of community outreach vehicles.

It’s a tactic that’s earned him criticism during his five-plus years as the top law enforcement officer at Florida’s largest sheriff’s department, but one that may come in handy now that he’s under intense scrutiny for the way his agency responded to a Parkland shooting that killed 17 and how it handled calls and tips before the tragedy about shooter Nikolas Cruz.

If his crisis is of his own making, then his salvation may be as well.

“[Scott Israel] stood with us now we must stand with him,” Col. Jim Polan, one of Israel’s top lieutenants, wrote Monday in an email urging other brass to rally deputies. “It’s important that they are reminded about all of the great things that our agency has accomplished under the direction of Sheriff Israel.”

Now two weeks removed from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Israel is on an island.

Republicans are demanding his ouster following the sheriff’s belated disclosure that a deputy assigned to the school waited outside the building where Cruz did his killing and “never went in.” Democrats are keeping their distance as outside investigators review how BSO handled dozens of calls and tips that painted a portrait of an armed, volatile teenager.

And as Israel deflects any responsibility for errors his deputies may have made — touting his own “amazing leadership” on CNN Sunday — the rank-and-file are beginning to “grumble.”

“It’s a low grumble now, but it’s starting to build,” said Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association.

The pressure — including a subpoena for documents issued Wednesday by the Florida House of Representatives — is forcing Israel and his allies to try and gin up support, relying on the sheriff’s skills as a politician in order to defend his abilities as a law enforcement agent. On Thursday, with conservative media painting him as “the Barney Fife of Parkland,” Israel’s supporters will gather at a Pompano Beach church to show their support for the sheriff.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting that the school resource officer stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was suspended without pay after he learned the deputy never went into the building when the shooting began.

But it’s hardly an independent event: The gathering is scheduled at the Word of the Living God Ministries, where pastor John Mohorn is a former BSO chaplain.

If Israel has few people outside his department to lean on, it may be because he’s done himself few favors since Cruz killed 17 students and faculty on Feb. 14 and wounded 15 more.

Immediately after the shooting, for instance, the sheriff touted his agency’s swift response and said the tragedy was a reminder that the public has to help law enforcement identify people on the edge of violence.

“If you see something, say something,” he told the media. “If anybody has any indicator that someone is going through a behavioral change, or on their social media that there are disturbing photos, perhaps bombs or firearms or videos or pictures that are just not right, please make sure law enforcement knows about it.”

As it turned out, members of the public had done exactly that: In call after call, they warned BSO deputies, as well as the FBI, that Cruz owned weapons and was a threat to himself and others. He was a “school shooter in the making,” one tipster stated. He was posting photos with guns on Instagram, another warned.

But little was done.

The sheriff’s office — which has shut down the release of information while the investigation continues — has adamantly stated that none of the tips or calls it received regarding Cruz were for “arrestable offenses.” Still, BSO’s internal affairs investigators are now reviewing two instances where deputies may have mishandled tips. Israel placed the two deputies, Edward Eason and Guntis Treijs, on restricted duty last week.

Meanwhile, in the days after the shooting, the sheriff created a narrative that BSO had responded flawlessly to the unfolding crisis at Stoneman Douglas. Cruz was captured a little more than an hour after the attack and some lives were saved thanks to the quick thinking of first responders, he said.

“We were so much more proficient at this tragedy than we were at the airport,” Israel said two days after the shooting, comparing his agency’s response to Cruz’s rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas to its muddled response to a January 2017 shooting spree at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. “We took the things away. We learned. We trained.”

That same day, when Israel introduced command staff to President Donald Trump during his visit to South Florida, the sheriff said, “These are the leaders who led the first responders for police and fire, our deputies who were able do the amazing things we did in Broward County.”

“Give them a raise,” the president remarked. “Give everybody here a raise.”

The alliance between the Democratic sheriff and Republican president seemed a bit awkward, but not entirely unnatural. Broward’s sheriff has always been a political powerhouse, one who controls thousands of law enforcement officers, a budget of around a half-billion dollars, and a bully pulpit unrivaled in South Florida law enforcement.

That power was on display when CNN hosted a town hall at the BB&T Center in Sunrise one week after the shooting and invited Israel to give a speech and stick around to answer questions from shooting survivors and their families. He received loud applause, and positioned himself firmly in the gun control debate as someone antagonistic to the National Rifle Association and supportive of a community demanding the ban of assault weapons.

But eight days after the shooting — and one day after he “called BS” on the NRA at the BB&T Center — Israel announced that an armed school resource officer had failed to confront Cruz.

NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch appeared on a CNN Town Hall on guns in Sunrise, Florida and said law enforcement could have done more to stop the Florida school shooting. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Loesch had her facts wrong.

The actions of the deputy, Scot Peterson, who has defended his conduct, were captured on surveillance footage. As many as five additional deputies were reportedly slow to respond as well. But Israel said he did not watch the crucial tape for more than a week.

“It wasn’t my job to look at the video,” Israel said on CNN Sunday. “It was investigators’ job to look at the video. I’m still sheriffing this county.”

Trump quickly turned on the department, bashing Broward’s deputies for doing “a terrible, terrible job.” Republicans in the Florida House called for his removal from office and announced they would scrutinize BSO through a commission created to review flaws in the response.

Some residents in Parkland — where Israel lived for 10 years and raised his triplets — are also repudiating Israel: More than 200 people have signed an online petition calling on the city of Parkland to cancel its contract for police services with BSO because of its handling of the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

“Parkland deserves better,” resident Jeanne Kacprzaktold the Miami Herald.

Two weeks after the shooting, Israel has largely shut down the flow of information, leaving a litany of unanswered questions:

▪ When did Israel first learn of — and watch —the surveillance video of Peterson?

▪ When did BSO realize Cruz had been on their radar for years?

▪ What kind of training do BSO deputies, particularly school resource officers, receive on active shooters? How often does such training take place?

▪ Which BSO command staffer took charge of the scene at Stoneman Douglas? What orders did they issue?

▪ How many BSO deputies did not immediately enter the building and why?

While not exactly rushing to the sheriff’s defense, local and state Democrats are asking that everyone let the facts come out before passing judgment. They view the Israel controversy as a distraction, but believe that if it weren’t Israel, Republicans eager to talk about anything but gun control would find something else to harp on.

“It’s just a distraction,” said Cynthia Busch, chairwoman of the Broward Democratic Party.

Broward County Commissioner Michael Udine, whose daughter attends Stoneman Douglas, said Tuesday that the county needs to conduct its own review of all agencies involved in the response to the shooting and the multiple tips related to Cruz’s guns, breakdowns and disputes over the last decade. The former Parkland mayor said the county can’t trust any of the agencies to conduct an independent review.

This is so much bigger than one person,” he said. “This is so much bigger than the sheriff of Broward County.”

Freelance writer Wanda J. DeMarzo contributed to this report.

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