FORT LAUDERDALE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday appointed Gregory Tony, a former Coral Springs police sergeant, as Broward's top cop, replacing Scott Israel, the embattled sheriff who has been widely blamed for the chaotic response to the Feb. 14, 2018, shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Israel, 62, was suspended by DeSantis just three days after the new governor took his oath of office. The two-term sheriff — a 30-year law enforcement veteran — has vowed to fight any effort to strip him of his elected office. He maintains that while mistakes were made in responding to the rampage, they were not serious enough to warrant his suspension or removal. He called a news conference for 5:15 p.m. to announce what course of action he plans to take.
"On behalf of all the families that lost loved ones that day we thank the governor for taking this action,'' said Tony Montalto, whose daughter Gina was shot and killed at the high school.
Tony, the county's first black sheriff and a Democrat chosen by a Republican governor, takes the reigns of the most powerful office in Broward, with a $900 million budget and about 6,000 employees. The agency provides law enforcement to a dozen cities, the county jail and Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
He will serve out the remainder of Israel's term, which is up in 2020 — unless Israel is successful in convincing the state Senate to reinstate him. Since Republicans control the Legislature, that is seen as a long shot.
Broward Commissioner Steve Geller, a former state senator, said DeSantis was savvy to appoint a black sheriff, which could divide Democratic leadership in Tallahassee. But, while he doesn't downplay the severity of the tragedy or the mistakes that contributed to it, he said the governor appears to be placing the entire blame for a series of colliding problems on Israel.
"I believe this is an improper suspension," Geller said. "If you believe in Democracy, the voters of Broward County elected Israel. If they thin he did a poor job they can return him to private practice."
Tony, 40, a native of Philadelphia, is the president of Blue Spear Solutions, a security company that specializes in active shooter and mass casualty training — precisely the kind of training that BSO lacked, according to a report issued by a panel that investigated the response to the rampage. The 458-page Parkland commission report was highly critical of the agency, finding that several deputies failed to try to stop the massacre, or were slow, ill-trained and unprepared.
The commission questioned the urgency of BSO's response, pointing out that had deputies entered the school building immediately — instead of waiting for instructions — the killer, Nikolas Cruz, 20, may not have taken so many lives. Cruz, a former student at the school, killed 14 students, three staff and injured another 17 victims.
Friday afternoon, dozens of people gathered hours before DeSantis' arrival in anticipation of Israel's announced suspension at Broward's public safety building in Fort Lauderdale. Several parents of slain Parkland students, including Tony Montalto, Max Schachter and Fred Guttenberg, were among them. Some wore Trump hats. Others carried signs blasting Israel.
Tony appears to have the support of parents of the victims, including Andrew Pollack, father of murder victim Meadow Pollack, who said Tony is a friend and solid law enforcement professional.
Guttenberg, whose daughter, Jaime, died in the school's freshman 1200 building, was also pleased with the choice.
"He sounds like a really bright guy with great leadership potential who also has a significant training capability. That's a combination I feel really strongly about. A good combination," Guttenberg said.
Tony moved to Tallahassee after high school, hoping to play on the Florida State football team. He got his chance as a walk-on fullback but was later sidelined with a back injury, according to Warchant.com.
He graduated with a criminal justice degree and was hired in 2005 by Coral Springs, where he served on the SWAT team for five years and was promoted to sergeant in 2014. He started his company the following year and retired in 2016.
His company offers training programs for law enforcement and civilians, focusing on practices that preserve life, including lifesaving bleeding control techniques, according to the firm's website.
The 15-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission said BSO's active shooter training was not only inadequate, but that several deputies who were interviewed after the shootings said they couldn't remember the last time they received the training.
The commission found a variety of other problems, including a patchy 911 county communications network, faulty radios and an ineffective command system.
Despite the avalanche of apparent mistakes, Israel remained steadfast in his defense of his leadership and the response of his agency.
Guttenberg said Israel's ouster was "long overdue."
"A change was needed," said Guttenberg. "I'm glad that change is here today."
Israel, 62, a native New Yorker and son of a New York City homicide detective, was elected in 2012 after 30 years with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. During his tenure at BSO, he has touted a sharp drop in violent crime in Broward, the state's second most populous county and a Democratic stronghold.
A registered Republican until switching parties to run for sheriff in 2008, Israel lost to Republican Al Lamberti that year.
Israel immediately fired a slew of Lamberti's staff — just days before Christmas — underscoring the political nature of the job, and began hiring members of his election team, childhood friends, politically connected staffers, former Fort Lauderdale cops and sheriff's deputies who had fallen out of favor with Lamberti.
Then at his swearing in, Israel invited a rapper with a long arrest sheet to perform and welcomed ex-sheriff Ken Jenne, a convicted felon who committed tax evasion and mail fraud, to the ceremony. During his rocky first year in office, he was slapped with a whistleblower lawsuit by a BSO homicide detective who claimed he was transferred to road patrol by Israel in retribution for reporting that two fellow law enforcement officers had ordered a police dog to viciously attack a suspect for no reason.
In 2012, the Florida Ethics Commission found probable cause that he improperly accepted gifts, a holiday yacht party and a cruise from a supporter, but the panel declined to take action, citing his newness to the job.
Nonetheless, he won reelection, only to face fierce criticism for BSO's handling of the Parkland shooting, after it was revealed that his deputies did not enter the freshman building to confront the shooter until officers from neighboring Coral Springs charged past them.
But Israel was lauded for some of his initiatives. He won the civil rights award in 2014 from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for a homeless outreach program and he garnered praise for working with the African-American community on a program to give juveniles civil citations instead of jail time for non-violent offenses.
His positions have often put him at odds with other Florida sheriffs. In 2013, he urged legislative changes to restrict Florida's Stand Your Ground law. A vocal proponent of gun-control measures, Israel has often used shooting tragedies as a pulpit to speak about the issue, earning him animosity from the NRA.
In a 2017 interview with the Herald, Israel said he was proud of his independent streak.
"All I'm going to do is speak my mind,'' he said. "If I'm on an island, I'm on an island. I'm not going to worry about who is with me or who is not.''
— This story was written by David Smiley and Julie K. Brown