Brought in to clean up after Parkland, Broward’s new sheriff deals with his own mess

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony
Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony pportal@miamiherald.com

Broward’s new sheriff has the look of a man trying to build bridges and mend fences with gasoline and matches.

In the week since video emerged of two white deputies pepper-spraying a black high school freshman before throwing him to the ground and slamming his face into the asphalt of a McDonald’s parking lot, Gregory Tony has managed to turn outrage into fury.

He has criticized the State Attorney’s Office for dropping charges against 15-year-old DeLucca Rolle, finger-wagged the county’s mayor and spoke condescendingly to local politicians who questioned his disciplinary methods. In circumstances not all that dissimilar to the suspended sheriff he was chosen this January to replace, he appeared in public this week to defend himself and his department and instead inflamed the community he’d hoped to pacify.

Tony now finds himself in a precarious position. He’s Broward County’s first black sheriff, but already he’s battling with the NAACP. He’s a top cop but a rookie politician occupying a job to which he wasn’t elected. And he has less than four months of experience as sheriff but he’s already on the cusp of campaign season.

And for the first time since the former Coral Springs police sergeant was plucked from the private sector by Florida’s governor to clean up someone else’s monumental mess, Tony finds himself scrambling to quell controversies wholly owned by his administration. How he deals with them could determine whether he keeps his job — and so far observers say he’s doing himself no favors.

“At some point and time he has to understand he’s no longer just a cop,” said Dale Holness, a county commissioner and chairman of the Broward Black Elected Officials. “He’s a community leader and a community builder. Being a political neophyte will only last so long.”

Tony, who according to a spokeswoman was in transit and unavailable for an interview Friday, was brought in by Gov. Ron DeSantis this January to replace twice-elected Sheriff Scott Israel following last year’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A state investigation documented a chaotic response and found that Israel’s deputies repeatedly failed to protect and help students and faculty, and DeSantis made good on a campaign promise to use powers afforded the governor in the state Constitution to throw Israel out of office.

And Tony seemed a risky but inspired choice. The 40-year-old former cop never rose past the rank of sergeant in his time with the Coral Springs police, but had launched his own law enforcement training firm specializing in mass-casualty responses and formed a bond with several families of victims from the Parkland shooting.

“He’s a real policeman, he’s not a politician,” said Andrew Pollack, a Parkland father who helped introduce Tony to DeSantis nearly a year after his daughter, Meadow, was murdered at Stoneman Douglas. “He puts the community first and he wants to do the right thing. I think he’s doing a great job.”

Video posted on social media shows Broward sheriff's deputies pepper-spraying and punching a teen during a confrontation near J.P. Taravella High.

But it’s a tough spot. Tony was specifically brought in under the umbrella of “accountability,” meaning any flaps would be magnified. He’d have to immediately oversee a nearly $1 billion police and fire agency of more than 5,000 employees despite having never risen past middle management in a middle-sized city police department. And, to top it off, the position is elected — and, as Pollack said, Tony is no politician.

That was evident when the sheriff walked into Tamarac City Hall on Wednesday to engage in diplomacy with city commissioners and angry taxpayers demanding that Tony punish the cops they’d seen on Twitter punching a kid in their city. Commissioners in Tamarac, among the 13 municipalities that hold BSO contracts for law enforcement or fire rescue, wanted to vote to ask that BSO keep the three deputies out of their city.

But instead of pacifying the politicians, Tony chided them for not understanding the “use of force matrix” that guides how police engage with suspects and the public in tense situations, and treated calls for him to fire his deputies as dangerous torch-and-pitchfork demands. In just 25 minutes, Tony had gone from pleading for patience and explaining why he couldn’t simply fire the deputies who’d arrested DeLucca to berating a city commissioner and walking out of City Hall.

“I will not stand here and be held as if I’m a suspect of anything. I will hold my people accountable if they stepped out of line. I don’t care if it’s three deputies or 35, they will be held accountable,” Tony said, his voice rising during a heated exchange with Commissioner Marlon Bolton, who’d asked him why he’d suspended two of the deputies but not a third involved in the incident.

“I will not stand here and be lectured to about the laws of investigative practices because no one up there has the experience that I have, or my staff,” Tony said. “So, sir, you’re out of line with the context of what you’re demanding from me and I won’t accept it.”

Bolton responded: “That is the same aggression that your officers used when you pushed one of our young people to the ground.”

Tony left City Hall to applause. But the exchange — similar to a defensive and stunning interview Scott Israel gave last year to CNN’s Jake Tapper following the shooting in Parkland — left jaws agape.

Bolton began his talk with Tony by complimenting his appearing before Broward’s black leaders over the weekend and presenting information about the incident “that we did not see before.” But he took to Facebook Wednesday night to call Tony a “bully.” Holness, who’d worked with Tony to schedule last weekend’s meeting with black leaders weeks before DeLucca’s arrest, watched the Tamarac meeting online and wondered where the calm, accommodating sheriff he’d seen Saturday had gone.

“It’s almost like the person we saw yesterday wasn’t the same person we saw this weekend,” Holness said during a Thursday interview.

And it wasn’t just the tenor of Tony’s remarks that troubled people. He also seemed to lack self-awareness, criticizing what he called the politicization of Broward County law enforcement from outsiders, as if a Jacksonville-area governor hadn’t just suspended the elected sheriff and replaced him with someone living in Boca Raton.

Attorney Ben Crump joins the NAACP to demand justice for black Broward County teen beaten by police

“Perhaps he’s confused about what’s political because he wasn’t elected,” Marsha Ellison, the president of the Broward chapter of the NAACP, quipped Thursday during a press conference at the Broward Public Defender’s office in Fort Lauderdale. “If this is his idea of leadership, accountability, then we are in trouble. I don’t see the concern that we should see. I’m not sure accountability is really on the sheriff’s mind.”

This all spells trouble for a rookie politician facing a difficult reelection.

Israel, who in all likelihood will continue fighting a long-shot war to win his job back in a hearing before the Florida Senate this summer, has vowed to run to win his seat back. Meanwhile, there are already five candidates not named Israel or Tony in the race, three of them black and threatening to split up a vote from a key constituency.

Tony hasn’t yet opened a campaign account even though he said weeks ago that he planned to run as a Democrat to keep his job. It’s also unclear where his campaign cash will come from in an election sure to draw several hundred thousand voters.

But being an incumbent has its financial advantages. And Tony still has a fan in Florida’s governor.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis Chris O'Meara AP

“I have a lot on my plate, so I don’t follow everything that’s going on but I think he’s the type of guy who, as challenges present themselves, he’s not going to shy away from them. I think he’ s going to tackle them head-on,” DeSantis said Thursday during an appearance in Miami. “When you see different conflicts between law enforcement and different communities, Sheriff Tony is somebody who can potentially bridge that gap. I think that would be good for the folks of Broward County.”

But while DeSantis has proven early to be a popular politician, the Republican governor only holds so much sway in liberal Broward County. And there are also disadvantages to being sheriff.

Not only is Tony dealing with the DeLucca controversy, but on Wednesday video surfaced of a New Year’s Day incident in which a Broward deputy punched a man who had one hand cuffed to a hospital bed after his arrest for disorderly conduct. Tony also recently was criticized after a man charged with hitting an employee at a mental health facility sucker-punched a public defender in the face in bond court.

“Some days it’s great to be sheriff,” said longtime Democratic activist Mitch Ceasar. “Some days it’s not.”

Bodycam footage shows a Jan. 1 confrontation in a Broward Health North hospital room between Broward Sheriff's Office Deputy Jorge Sobrino and David O'Connell, who was under arrest for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence.

Tony has been trying to build relationships and support in what time he’s had. But he’s also been busy trying to run a massive law enforcement agency, build his own team and deal with national media scrutiny lingering from the Parkland shooting.

On Thursday, he released a 100-day report in which he said he’d created the most diverse command staff in agency history, begun the process of building a $30 million training facility, designed new training programs and reached an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security that will lead to 25 nationally certified BSO active shooting instructors. He also said he’s established a center for real-time monitoring of information and video — including in schools — during “critical incidents” like the Parkland shooting, and created an active shooter training video for schools.

“I entered into office without any time to prepare, but with no illusions about what we needed to achieve,” Tony said in an email blast. “As Sheriff, I am fixing systemic problems that negatively affected both the Broward Sheriff’s Office and our community.”

New Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony pledged to restore confidence in deputies who were castigated for their chaotic response to last year’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

He is scheduled to begin negotiating his first budget with the Broward commission next week, but has been so busy that he’s yet to meet the mayor.

“I’ve not had a chance to work with Sheriff Tony much yet,” said Broward Mayor Mark Bogen, among the first politicians to demand that Tony fire his deputies in the DeLucca arrest. “From what I hear he’s been working on getting his department in order.”

Oddly, while irking activists, Tony hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the union tasked with defending his deputies. Jeff Bell, president of the largest union representing Broward Sheriff’s deputies, said it seems as if Tony is alienating himself from potential allies. Bell also criticized Tony, who brought in a former Coral Springs police colleague to serve as his undersheriff, for surrounding himself with an inexperienced team.

“You have a great ally with the union if you’re asking for help, and they’re not asking for help,” said Bell, who questions whether Tony will, indeed, try to campaign to keep his position. “His political inexperience is certainly his biggest enemy right now — through no fault of his own.”

But so far, Tony has impressed some of his earliest supporters. Pollack, who says he’s currently traveling the country in an RV, said he has “the utmost faith [Tony] is going to do a proper investigation” in the DeLucca case.

But Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, whose office interacts with BSO on a daily basis, said the jury is still out. Finkelstein has met Tony once, after his public defender was punched by an inmate. Finkelstein said he spoke with Tony, who’d proposed handcuffing all bond court detainees in response to the incident. Finkelstein thought that was overkill, but also came away feeling like Tony was a guy he could “have a beer with.”

But Finkelstein also worries that political backlash from Parkland — which included criticism of efforts to create a more lenient juvenile justice program — is leading to more aggressive policing. Ironically, Finkelstein wondered whether BSO’s first black sheriff might undo some of the changes in policing in the black community that were implemented by Israel.

“From what I saw in Tamarac, it was a step backwards 10 years to the era where law enforcement was always smack somebody in the head, take them to the ground, arrest them and then lie about it,” he said. “African Americans have waited 100 years for a black sheriff so that their children wouldn’t be treated roughly harshly and violently. And now that we have our first black sheriff, that community is very concerned about what they’re seeing.”