Broward Sheriff Scott Israel: Douglas school cop ‘never went in’
A state panel has voted unanimously to revoke the law enforcement accreditation of the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the largest sheriff’s office in Florida.
The loss of accreditation — a voluntary certification sought by law enforcement agencies — won’t affect BSO’s operations in a major way. But it is a further blow to the agency’s prestige at a time when a new command staff, including a new sheriff, are dealing with a string of failures and questionable conduct by deputies.
The Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Accreditation (CFA) cited BSO’s mishandling of the Parkland school shooting last year and the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shooting in 2017 as reasons for its decision in a 13-0 vote last week.
Both incidents were marked by chaotic and disorganized responses from the sheriff’s office. Seventeen people died at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Feb. 14, 2018, including some who were waiting for rescue as BSO deputies took cover, put on body armor and struggled to find the building where the massacre had taken place. Then-Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat, defended his agency but was suspended from office by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. On Monday, Israel filed paperwork to try to regain the job in the 2020 election.
Accreditation allows agencies to standardize their practices and make sure they meet widely accepted guidelines. It can also help buttress agencies in defending themselves against lawsuits as it shows their procedures have been validated by outside experts, as well as lower their insurance rates. In Florida, there are more than 200 standards that an agency must meet to maintain accreditation.
BSO was initially reviewed by a CFA assessment team in mid-December of 2018 and again in May 2019 after the release of a scathing state investigation into BSO’s performance at Stoneman Douglas. The team found that BSO was in compliance with state standards and recommended that BSO be “favorably reviewed” by the CFA panel, according to documents reviewed by the Miami Herald.
But the commission — a governing body made up of sheriffs, police chiefs and other high-ranking officials from across the state — voted to set aside that recommendation. Instead, it revoked BSO’s law enforcement accreditation based on its handling of the two major casualty incidents within its jurisdiction.
At the meeting in Orlando Wednesday, Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay pointed out that agencies must prove not only that they have proper standards and regulations in place but that their personnel are following those rules.
“During the rating period of the time we’re talking in question here, there were substantial periods where they were not in compliance with how they performed in the field,” Ramsay said, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the Herald. “As a result we saw the catastrophic loss of life and injuries and what transpired because of lack of following procedures and things in place.”
Another commission member added: “What happened this past year, the best practices were not exhibited on the day of that tragedy. There were multiple policy failures, training failures, leadership failures, equipment failures.”
BSO and its new sheriff, Gregory Tony, appointed by DeSantis to replace Israel in January, did not respond to questions for this story. Tony on Monday issued the following statement: “It is disheartening for the hardworking members of the Broward Sheriff’s Office to lose our accreditation because of the previous administration’s mishandling of two devastating events in our community. Since recently taking command, I have worked on improving BSO and repairing the effects of bad leadership and negligence by focusing on training and community relations. I will continue working hard to ensure that all Broward residents feel safe and that our agency’s reputation and honor are restored.”
On its website, BSO lists the benefits of accreditation as “greater accountability, greater government support, increased community advocacy, protects employees and citizens, stronger positions in lawsuits, outside agency review [and] recognition for excellence.”
BSO first received state accreditation in 2001. The agency has also in the past gained national certification from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). But Vince Dauro, CALEA’s Southeast program manager, said BSO withdrew from consideration in January 2019.
Ryan Petty, who lost his daughter Alaina at Stoneman Douglas, said the state would have done a “disservice” to Broward County residents by renewing BSO’s accreditation.
“Sheriff Tony has a massive job ahead to restore BSO to its proper mission serving the residents of Broward County,” Petty said.
An investigation by the state-appointed Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission found that BSO’s active shooter policy was “inadequate,” that its command and control of the scene was “flawed” and that some of its deputies and commanders “failed” to respond to the shooting promptly and effectively.
In addition to Israel’s suspension — which he is fighting — Jan Jordan, the BSO captain in charge of the agency’s response at Stoneman Douglas, resigned. And four deputies, including school resource officer Scot Peterson, who did not go into the building attacked by rifle-wielding former student Nikolas Cruz, were fired.
The MSD commission’s findings echoed failures from the Fort Lauderdale aiport shooting. On Jan. 6, 2017, gunman Esteban Santiago killed five people before being apprehended by BSO just 90 seconds after opening fire. But the chaos continued long after as communications failed, emergency vehicles snarled traffic and panicked passengers were left without guidance for hours.
A draft report by BSO officials found that “the absence of a clearly defined [incident command] created unnecessary entanglements and unclear responsibilities.” (Much like he did after Stoneman Douglas, Israel defended BSO’s performance at the airport, telling the South Florida Sun Sentinel that “everything was done excellently.”)
Since Tony took over in January, BSO has also faced questions over its deputies’ rough treatment of teenagers, a video of a deputy punching a man handcuffed to a bed and deaths and alleged mistreatment in the Broward County jail, which is run by BSO.
CFA’s accreditation process works on a three-year cycle. Every three years, a CFA assessment team of law enforcement professionals visits a department to conduct interviews and review documents. They then make a recommendation to the CFA panel based on their findings. Brass from the department seeking accreditation must then appear in front of the commission for a final decision.
Tony did not attend last week’s meeting. Instead, BSO was represented by Col. Oscar Llerena, Capt. James Diefenbacher and accreditation manager Christa Wisniewski.
Israel told the Herald Monday that he was never contacted about the accreditation, but said he’d been told that the accreditation agency was dismayed by Tony’s decision not to attend.
“I only know what’s been told to me, and I was told the interim sheriff was asked to come and speak to the board in Tallahassee. I was told if he would have come and spoken, they would have kept the accreditation,” Israel said. “I was told it was because he didn’t show up and the group felt it wasn’t important to him and that’s why they did that.”
Many of the largest law enforcement agencies in Florida are accredited, including the Miami-Dade Police Department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office.
BSO may seek re-accreditation at future CFA meetings, which take place three times a year. The next meeting is scheduled for September.
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report, which was updated with new information on national accreditation.