TALLAHASSEE -- For the second day, ousted Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel defiantly defended his performance leading up to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shootings in Parkland and Wednesday pointedly rejected attempts by the governor’s lawyers to get him to say that he was responsible for the 17 lives lost.
“The responsibility for taking lives was that of an evil killer,’’ Israel responded to questions from the governor’s deputy general counsel, Nicholas Primrose, during a hearing before a state Senate special master.
Primrose is charged with defending Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to fulfill a campaign promise and suspend Israel. As a result of the suspension, Israel, 63, faces an abrupt and unexpected halt to his 40-year law enforcement career and has appealed DeSantis’ suspension to the Florida Senate, which by state law has the power to reverse a gubernatorial suspension.
The state Senate appointed Dudley Goodlette, a Naples lawyer and former Republican state legislator, to serve as special master and conduct the two-day hearing this week. He will make a recommendation to the Senate after he receives written final arguments from both sides on Aug. 19.
If the Republican-controlled Senate reverses the governor, it would be a defeat for DeSantis, who made removing the elected sheriff, a Democrat, part of his 2018 campaign platform. He issued the suspension order three days after he was sworn in as governor.
Israel accuses the new governor of failing to produce any evidence to support his claim that the sheriff of the state’s most heavily Democratic county neglected his duty and was incompetent in his leadership leading up to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last year. He alleges that DeSantis removed him from office to fulfill a political vendetta on behalf of the National Rifle Association, which DeSantis supports and Israel has sparred with.
The battle is likely to remain prolonged. Israel said Wednesday after the conclusion of the hearing that regardless of whether the Senate gives him his job back, he will seek election to another term as Broward sheriff in 2020 — a potential clash with DeSantis’ appointee, Gregory Tony.
DeSantis has already told senators he is watching them.
In his state of the state address in January, DeSantis said, “Why any senator would want to thumb his nose at the Parkland families and to eject Sheriff Tony, who is doing a great job and has made history as the first African-American sheriff in Broward history, is beyond me.”
Primrose and Deputy General Counsel John MacIver chose not to produce any witnesses during two days of hearings this week, allowing Israel and three current and former deputies to be the sole witnesses for the suspended sheriff.
Through their questions of Israel, the governor’s attorneys attempted to portray Israel as a failed leader for his handing of the Feb. 14, 2018, Parkland shooting and the Jan. 6, 2017 shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which left five people dead.
Primrose grilled Israel about the agency’s failure to act when a deputy received a report that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, in 2016 posted on Instagram that he planned to “shoot up a school.”
“With something so tragic as a school shooting, there was no policy that if the there was a school shooting event it has to be documented and immediately sent to the sheriff?’’ he asked.
Israel responded that the deputy violated the policy that required him to write up the incident and was disciplined for it but, he said, if Israel been personally notified about it, “it would not have changed anything.”
“There were no crimes committed, and this person would not have been arrested,’’ Israel said.
Israel testified that he is not alone in the belief that while he is responsible for what happens under his watch, he bears no direct responsibility for the massacre.
“Not only do I believe it, I have not met one person — other than Gov. DeSantis — who does believe it,’’ he said. He testified that neither the Marjory Stoneman Douglas citizen’s commission appointed to make recommendations to increase school safety, nor the commission’s chair, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, recommended Israel’s removal.
Israel’s attorney, Ben Kuehne, played a December interview on Tampa’s NBC6 television in which Gualtieri said he would not recommend DeSantis remove Israel from office for misfeasance, incompetence or neglect of duty.
“Just because your people are imperfect, or in some cases wrong, or in some cases negligent, or in some cases act improperly or engage in malfeasance or misfeasance like Peterson, that doesn’t mean the sheriff did,” Gualtieri told the reporter, referring to former school resource deputy Scot Peterson. Gualtieri is a Republican and was named National Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriff’s association.
In answers to a series of questions from Kuehne, Israel testified that Peterson, who last month was arrested by state law enforcement officers, failed to follow the active shooter policy. Israel also said that while he was obligated to train his deputies, and conducted training that included a one-of-a-kind active shooter simulation at Pompano High School that received national attention, he should not be held responsible for Peterson’s failure to follow the department’s policy and enter the school to confront the shooter.
He testified that the BSO training policy was specific: “You will pursue. You will enter, and you will take that person into custody as soon as is humanly possible with no exceptions.”
He said the governor and his attorneys are wrong to “think I could provide any man or woman on this earth with courage and the desire to go inside when their conscience tells them not to go in.”
“Had I had that knowledge, I would have removed him as a deputy,’’ Israel said.
Israel testified that the improvements he implemented since the shooting include signing a memorandum of understanding with the Broward School District that allows law enforcement to monitor the video cameras on school property. He said he created a real-time crime center to monitor happenings in schools, including the ability to pick up the sound of gunfire, and rolled out an app called “Safer Watch” to allow the public to report crimes of bullying and other threats that would more easily allow the agency to follow up.
Kuehne said he is confident the state Senate will overlook politics and restore Israel to his job because the governor’s lawyers not only failed to call any witnesses but produced “no support, no evidence standards” to prove their claims that Israel was incompetent.
“Who possibly besides the governor — with no law enforcement experience, no leadership experience whatsoever in terms of running a law enforcement agency — has made the decision,’’ he asked after the hearing.
DeSantis spokesperson, Helen Ferre, responded that “the internal documents created by the BSO and presented at the hearing speak for themselves as to what happened February 14, 2018, showing that Scott Israel did not properly prepare his force for a crisis that could have ended differently.”
She defended the decision not to call witnesses to support the case, saying that “taking them away from their duties to protect the community was not necessary given the abundant information already available” and “the most critical witness was Scott Israel.”
Kuehne said he attempted to subpoena DeSantis “to get him to explain what he means by neglect of duty when there is no duty that he neglected,” but Senate President Bill Galvano said he did not have the authority to order the appearance of an executive from another branch of government.
Kuehne also bristled at DeSantis’ subtle threat to the Senate for hearing Israel’s appeal. “His position is my way or the highway,’’ he said. “That shows — for a governor, who is a lawyer — a lack of basic understanding of our constitutional principles.”