Suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel should be reinstated, report finds

A special master appointed to consider Israel’s challenge wrote a report to the Florida Senate.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before a CNN town hall broadcast on Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center, in Sunrise, Fla. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel speaks before a CNN town hall broadcast on Feb. 21, 2018, at the BB&T Center, in Sunrise, Fla. (Michael Laughlin/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
Published Sept. 25, 2019|Updated Sept. 25, 2019

Former Broward Sheriff Scott Israel — suspended in January by Florida’s governor and blamed for last year’s school shooting in Parkland — should be reinstated, an independent arbitrator has ruled.

Calling the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a “culmination of individual failures,” a Naples attorney appointed by the state to consider Israel’s challenge of his suspension wrote in a report Tuesday that the Florida Senate should return Israel to his elected position atop the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

The findings of the attorney, Dudley Goodlette, however are not binding. They will be presented to the Florida Senate during a four-hour special session scheduled for Oct. 23, during which the upper chamber of the Florida Legislature will decide whether to permanently remove Israel or reinstate him.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who suspended Israel in one of his first acts as governor and replaced him with current Sheriff Gregory Tony, was defiant Wednesday, signaling that he wants the Republican-led Senate to support him in his decision.

“The victims with families impacted by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deserve justice and accountability,’’ he said in a statement. “I disagree with the analysis contained in the non-binding recommendation; the senators will render their own independent judgment on Scott Israel. Floridians were appalled by Scott Israel’s repeated failures and expect their senators will provide the accountability that the Parkland families have sought for the past year and a half.”

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Goodlette, who was appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano months ago to serve as special master in Israel’s case, also warned that removing Israel would set an “unworkable” precedent by which Florida’s governor could remove just about anyone from office.

“Sheriff Israel and the BSO are not blameless for the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas,” wrote Goodlette. “That said, the evidence offered has not demonstrated that Sheriff Israel should be removed from office based on this incident.”

Israel, who says he has been scapegoated, declared that “the rule of law has prevailed.”

“I humbly ask the Florida Senate to approve my reinstatement, so I can continue to serve all Broward County as the people’s elected sheriff,” he said in a statement issued by his attorneys.

Goodlette’s findings are also likely to outrage the parents of slain Parkland students and faculty, who stood with Tony and DeSantis when they announced Israel’s suspension outside BSO headquarters in January.

“I can’t believe it,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter, Jaime, was murdered on the third floor of the 1200 building at Stoneman Douglas while a BSO deputy stood outside and did not enter. “The man failed before and after Feb. 14. Totally failed. I’m in utter shock.”

To the Legislature, Guttenberg said: “Do the right thing and do not reinstate him.”

But Goodlette’s 34-page report will be influential in those proceedings. And Goodlette repeatedly said that DeSantis’ attorneys had failed to prove that Israel had overseen institutional failures that led deputies to miss warning signs about the Parkland shooter and botch the response to the attack at the school.

“While the governor has offered a plethora of criticism, he has not shown that Sheriff Israel’s policies, procedures or training on active shooter situations were inconsistent with Florida law enforcement standards,’‘ he wrote.

DeSantis suspended Israel on Jan. 11, three days after being sworn in as governor. Florida’s new Republican governor, who campaigned on the promise to remove Israel from office, announced the sheriff’s suspension outside the BSO headquarters while surrounded by families of many of the 17 slain Parkland students and faculty.

In an executive order explaining the grounds for Israel’s removal, DeSantis blamed the sheriff for poor training, shoddy management, and other institutional failures he said contributed to the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. DeSantis also accused Israel of negligence during the chaotic response to the Jan. 6, 2017, shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, when a passenger on an incoming flight from Alaska pulled a gun out of his luggage and began firing randomly at people.

A state commission created and empowered by the Florida Legislature to investigate the circumstances of the Parkland shooting also found deep fault with BSO for the way its deputies found cover outside the building and failed to engage the shooter, and for failing to identify a series of warning signs around the shooter, a former student. And the deputy assigned by BSO to protect the school, Scot Peterson, took cover during the shooting, failed to enter the building where the attack was taking place and told other deputies over the radio to stay away.

Despite those shortcomings, neither the Marjory Stoneman Douglas citizens’ commission appointed to make recommendations to increase school safety, nor the commission’s chair, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, recommended that Israel be removed.

The suspension put an abrupt and unexpected halt to Israel’s 40-year law enforcement career and he appealed to the Florida Senate. State law allows the state Senate to reverse a gubernatorial suspension.

During a two-day hearing before Goodlette in June, Israel’s attorneys presented three witnesses, depositions and the introduction of thousands of pages of documents

“The responsibility for taking lives was that of an evil killer,” Israel said under oath.

The governor’s deputy general counsels, Nicholas Primrose and John MacIver, chose not to produce any witnesses and instead attempted to use their questions to Israel and his deputies to portray him as a failed leader for his handing of the Parkland and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport shootings.

But Goodlette rejected that portrayal, saying the governor repeatedly failed to produce sufficient evidence to support his claim that Israel was negligent in his duties.

Goodlette also said that DeSantis did not overreach in suspending Israel, an argument made by Democrats, but concluded the governor’s attorneys had failed to produce evidence to back their claims that the sheriff should be removed from office.

He said the governor failed to produce evidence that that the BSO’s “active shooter policy” was deficient, or that a different policy was used by sheriffs in other counties, or that the three-year training cycle was incomplete or insufficient.

“Without evidence that Sheriff Israel omitted training that must be considered necessary, the assertion that he neglected his constitutional mandate is not sustainable,’‘ Goodlette wrote.

Israel testified that he is not alone in the belief that he bears no direct responsibility for the massacre.

“I have not met one person — other than Gov. DeSantis — who does believe it,’’ he said.

Goodlette, however, also dismissed Israel’s arguments that his suspension was political as “a red herring” that “ultimately fall on deaf ears” because they “have no bearing” on the question of whether Israel was incompetent or neglected his duties.

Goodlette noted that the “Senate is free to accept or reject my recommendations as it sees fit.”

Israel, a Democrat, may have won one battle, but must still face the Senate fight. There are 23 Republicans elected to the Florida Senate, so his reinstatement may be a long shot.

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.”

Regardless of how the Senate votes, the elected position of Broward sheriff is on the ballot again in 2020. Israel and Tony are expected to face off in the Democratic primary in August.

Tony has not yet filed to run for the office, but has said he intends to campaign to keep his job. He could not be immediately reached.

Miami Herald reported Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.