BSO Sheriff Israel fights for his job amid mounting criticism

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

Less than two weeks before Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis is to be sworn into office, embattled Broward Sheriff Scott Israel sent a letter Wednesday to a state-appointed safety committee, highlighting policy changes in his department following the February mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The publicly released letter, addressed to MSD High School Public Safety Commission Chairman Bob Gualtieri, outlined seven previously announced initiatives by Israel’s department taken since the shooting in Parkland that killed 17 and wounded 17 others.

The letter‘s publication came hours before the release of new witness statements that highlight the contrast between the response of Coral Springs police, which has generally received favorable reviews, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, which has been harshly criticized. Among the issues the safety panel pointed out: BSO deputies seemed to take their time putting on vests upon arrival and took cover behind their cars, rather than entering the school to confront the shooter — until Coral Springs police took the initiative.

Deputies also struggled to communicate on an aged radio system as students and teachers bled.

“It was like two separate agencies running two separate incidents,” Coral Springs officer Richard Best told agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. “We should all be able to communicate with everybody. And — that did not take place there.”

Reached Wednesday evening, Israel defended his leadership and said his letter to the committee was an effort to let members know what changes had been made. He called it a “work in progress.”

Still, the sheriff said whatever policy had been in place at the time of the shooting wouldn’t have changed the response of the school’s resource officer, an armed deputy who hid behind a wall during the rampage by 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz rather than entering the building.

“It is the strong belief of this sheriff that no policies, no words would have led to Deputy [Scot] Peterson going into that building,” Israel said.

Peterson, who spent about a decade patrolling Stoneman Douglas’ grounds, was the only officer on the scene when the shooting began. Video shows him concealing himself behind a wall as the massacre occurred inside the freshman building. Not long afterward, the sheriff suspended him pending an investigation. Peterson later resigned.

Israel’s letter came as the elected sheriff is being battered over the chaotic response — and in some cases, inaction — by his officers on Feb. 14, when former student Cruz walked onto the high school’s campus, unimpeded by school security, and shot and killed 17 students and administrators with a high-powered rifle.

The steps outlined in the sheriff’s letter represent the first comprehensive attempt to catalog changes by the sheriff’s office following the shooting. They include yearly active shooter training for all officers, internal affairs investigations into the inaction of two officers and a change to the department’s active shooter policy that will now require that officers immediately move toward and try to confront an active shooting threat. The previous policy said they “may” do so.

Also planned: a new threat assessment unit that will evaluate violent threats. BSO was warned repeatedly about Cruz’s violent outbursts prior to the Parkland shooting, but took no decisive action.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel details the official timeline of events during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting on Feb. 14, 2018.

Criticism of Israel has centered on the delay by BSO deputies in entering the building where gunshots were fired and the resulting failure to confront the shooter. Critics include parents whose children were killed, the police union that represents most BSO officers and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating the response.

The safety committee Gualtieri chairs began public hearings on the shooting in November. The group, appointed by outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, is expected to make its findings public after the New Year — possibly after DeSantis takes office Jan. 8. An FDLE report is expected around the same time.

It’s unclear how much influence the safety committee will have on Israel’s future. But during the gubernatorial campaign, DeSantis was clear about his views on Israel’s performance.

“I’ve been saying he [Israel] should resign for quite some time. We even took billboards out,” said Jeff Bell, a DeSantis appointee to his transition team’s safety committee and president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, which represents most of Broward’s 1,400 deputies.

If DeSantis were to suspend Israel, the Broward sheriff could request a trial before the Florida Senate. On Wednesday, Israel said he has “no plans to resign.”

“I have never had the opportunity to speak with the governor-elect. We’ve never met,” said Israel. “I can assure the committee I’m honored to serve and that I’ve never come close to malfeasance.”

The safety commission, which held hearings at the end of November, found that eight Broward Deputies, including Peterson, heard gunfire but did not immediately enter the building. Some took cover.

Jan Jordan, the captain at the scene, offered her resignation after it was learned she did not urge her deputies to immediately confront Cruz.

On Wednesday, more criticism of Israel came from the South Florida Sun Sentinel. In a scalding editorial titled “The Failed Leadership of Broward Sheriff Scott Israel,” the editorial board called his testimony before the safety committee “troubling” and called for the sheriff’s removal from office, a reversal of its previous stand.

Even while defending his department’s actions, Israel has sometimes hurt his own cause. Shortly after the February shooting during a now-infamous television interview, Israel told CNN news anchor Jake Tapper that he should only be held responsible for the things he knew about during the Parkland shooting. In the same interview, he touted his own “amazing leadership.”

During his November testimony before the commission, Israel said he purposely placed the word “may” in the active shooter policy to offer deputies discretion.

“I want an effective tactical response, not a suicide response,” Israel told committee members in November. “The goal of any agency’s response is to save lives. ‘May’ allows a deputy discretion.”

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a committee member, criticized Israel’s decision in committee testimony last month. “Words matter,” Judd said to Israel.

Israel’s defense didn’t sway some of BSO’s critics, especially those who lost loved ones in the February shooting.

Ryan Petty, a member of DeSantis’ public safety committee who is also on the transition team and whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was killed in February, said he’s been calling for Israel to resign for several months. He said he found Israel’s testimony troubling, especially where he admitted to changing the word “shall” to “may” when it came to an officer confronting an active shooter.

Petty also said failed radio communications that contributed to the chaos should have been solved two years ago, when they were revealed after a gunman from Alaska killed five travelers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January 2017.

“He should have been screaming from the top of the sheriff’s office, ‘I need this resolved,’ ” said Petty. “Instead, he’s been radio silent.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed, has also called for Israel’s removal and urged reforms of gun laws.

“I’ve made my feelings on the need for Sheriff Israel to be removed quite clear for some time now. Nothing has changed,” Guttenberg said.

Among the new elements in Wednesday’s records release: a complaint that politicians showed up at Stoneman Douglas around the time officers were looking for Cruz, sometimes getting in officers’ way. Coral Springs officer Best said Sheriff Israel walked up to a command post accompanied by “all the politicians.”

Coral Springs Chief Clyde Parry, who was deputy chief of operations at the time of the shooting, told investigators that he grew frustrated as politicians and their aides began to crowd the command bus while police were still managing the scene.

“Once the politicians started to show up ... again, if it were my scene, I would’ve set up a place away from us and put them there,” Parry said. “I would have a question or something that needed to be asked, and I’m waiting for one of the political aides to walk down off the ladder... and it’s like ‘I need something here, you gotta — you gotta get out of my way,’ ya know?”

None of the politicians were identified in the documents released Wednesday.

Miami Herald staff writer Sarah Blaskey contributed to this report.