Ousted Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel told a state Senate hearing officer Tuesday that he was the victim of a politically motivated agenda by Gov. Ron DeSantis after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last year, and he should get his job back.
The investigation into the role of the Broward Sheriff’s Office “had not even commenced” when DeSantis, then a candidate for governor, told his audiences: “I’ll suspend that guy,’’ Israel recalled, adding, “that’s not how America should be run.”
“To this day I’ve never met nor had a conversation with Gov. DeSantis,’’ a defiant Israel said as he embarked on his long-shot appeal to persuade the Republican-controlled state Senate to restore his job. “I’m 63 years old. I’ve spent 40 years in law enforcement, and sadly he didn’t think it was important enough to discuss my views instead of these false narratives that are out there.”
As a candidate, DeSantis twice said that if he were governor, he would have suspended Israel. Three days after being sworn into office, DeSantis followed up on his campaign promise. He ousted Israel and replaced him with former Coral Springs police sergeant Gregory Tony. Both Israel and Tony are Democrats. DeSantis is a Republican.
Under Florida’s constitution, the governor can suspend a sheriff for neglect of duty or incompetence, but the law also allows the accused to appeal the decision to the Florida Senate.
The governor’s removal of Israel “was not for any legal matter, was not for any constitutional reasons, but was a brutal political ploy designed to obtain his election and fulfill his promise to the National Rifle Association,’’ said Benedict Kuehne, Israel’s lawyer.
Executive Order 19-14 cites Israel’s “neglect of duty” prior to the Feb. 14, 2018, Parkland shooting but also claims he was incompetent and negligent in his handling of the Jan. 6, 2017, shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which left five people dead. The order said the airport was “in chaos” for hours as people feared for their lives amid false alarms of “shots fired.”
During his testimony late Tuesday, Israel forcefully pushed back.
“To say this was chaos or confusion — did you think this was a bakery on a Saturday at Publix?’’ he said. “ People were dying. People were confused. This is what happens in an active shooting situation.”
Nicholas Primrose, deputy general counsel for DeSantis, argued that Israel “failed in his statutory duty to protect the peace” by failing to properly train his deputies for active shooter situations. Because Florida law requires that sheriffs appoint their own deputies and “that the sheriff will be responsible for the neglect or defaults of the deputies that he entrusts,” Israel should be held to account because of the failure of several deputies during both shootings.
“This is a clear textbook case of the head of an agency being wholly responsible for the failures of his agents,’’ Primrose said in his opening statement.
He cited the 458-page Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission report, which found that several deputies failed to try to stop the massacre and were ill-trained and unprepared.
The commission questioned the Broward Sheriff Office’s response, saying that if deputies had not waited for instructions and had instead entered the school building immediately, the killer, Nikolas Cruz, may not have taken so many lives. Cruz, a former student at the school, killed 17 and injured 17 others.
Primrose also argued that Israel’s failures go back to the Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting when the shooter was apprehended shortly after he ran out of ammunition. But, he argued, “chaos ensued” because of a “power struggle” between Israel’s agency and the aviation authority’s law enforcement.
Israel countered that airport law enforcement and BSO “were exemplary that day.”
“Other than having more people alive. I wouldn’t change a thing,’’ he said.
Primrose called no witnesses at the hearing but, in addition to Israel, Kuehne presented the testimony of three former deputies of Israel’s: Jack Dale, a former BSO internal affairs officer; John Curcio, a current BSO homicide detective; and Robert Pusins, also formerly with BSO and an expert on police practices and procedures.
Dale described how the response to the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting received national attention and acclaim and how he and others in the department were invited to national law enforcement meetings to discuss their response and teach others.
Curcio, BSO’s lead investigator for the county’s prosecution of Cruz, testified he has reviewed “all aspects” of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting and was never invited to present his findings to either DeSantis or his predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott.
Pusins testified that despite the criticism of Israel’s handling of active shooter training within his department, neither DeSantis nor Scott, nor the members of the Criminal Justice Standards Commission who are appointed by the governor, have called for active shooter training in law enforcement counties throughout the state.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Israel took the stand in his own defense and testified that Scott ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an investigation into BSO’s role in the shooting but refrained from suspending Israel until the report was complete.
DeSantis, Israel argued, acted first, then investigated.
“You can just imagine how demoralized it was for me and my family,’’ he said. “...These hearings are about taking my livelihood away from me but incompetent or negligent, no sir.”
The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday with Israel facing the governor’s attorneys during cross-examination.
This is the third legal battle Israel has waged to get his job back. Earlier this year he filed a lawsuit challenging whether DeSantis had the authority to suspend him. He then called the decision a political “power grab” and said it voided the will of the voters. His attorneys said at the time that the governor had not specified any statutory or official duty that Israel neglected or performed incompetently.
On April 4, Broward Circuit Judge David Haimes ruled that DeSantis had the constitutional authority to suspend Israel. The Florida Supreme Court upheld the ruling.
Senate President Bill Galvano then appointed Dudley Goodlette, a Naples lawyer and former Republican state legislator, to serve as special master to make a recommendation to the state Senate. Galvano has previously said he will submit Goodlette’s report to the Senate’s Rules Committee, which will then submit a report for the full Senate to consider during next year’s session.
The hearing continues what has been a dramatic reversal of fortune for Israel, once one of Broward County’s most powerful elected officials. A native New Yorker and son of a New York City homicide detective, Israel was elected Broward sheriff in 2012 and reelected by a wide margin in 2016. He had previously spent 30 years with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, and all three officers who testified on his behalf Tuesday had also served at the Fort Lauderdale agency.
During his tenure at BSO, Israel oversaw a sharp drop in violent crime in Broward, the state’s second most populous county and a Democratic stronghold. The school shooting occurred close to home — in a neighborhood where he coached football, where his triplets attended school and where he once owned a home literally across the street from Stoneman Douglas High School.
Israel was an advocate for the ban of semiautomatic assault rifles and successfully lobbied Scott, who was a National Rifle Association supporter, to promote mental health legislation.
By contrast, DeSantis is an NRA supporter and received the organization’s endorsement. His lawyers are also conservative Republicans. Primrose is a former member of Scott’s legal team who worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. John MacIver, also deputy general counsel for DeSantis, served a similar role in Scott’s legal office. He is a former legal adviser to the state law enforcement chiefs association and in 2012 oversaw political campaigns for Central Florida candidates endorsed by the National Rifle Association-Political Victory Fund.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @MaryEllenKlas