TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate made it official Wednesday and removed Scott Israel, Broward County’s suspended top cop who the governor blamed for the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s botched response to the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Israel, a Democrat, was halfway through his second term when Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, made good on a campaign promise and suspended him for incompetence and neglecting his duty. In his place, DeSantis named Gregory Tony, a former Coral Springs sergeant.
After an emotional four hours of debate, the same Senate that 20 months ago rejected calls for an assault weapons ban after the Parkland shooting, voted 25-15 largely along party lines to remove Israel, winning praise from the families of the victims.
But, while Israel was on trial, so was the Florida Senate, which after receiving a recommendation that Israel be reinstated, had to carve a new precedent for holding sheriffs accountable to uphold DeSantis’ promise.
Senate Republicans advanced a principle known as the “alter ego” of the sheriff, based on a 1868 state law that says “sheriffs may appoint deputies to act under them who shall have the same power as the sheriff appointing them.”
The law was designed to empower deputies with the same powers as sheriffs in then-sparsely populated Florida. It also gave deputies the same legal immunities as sheriffs.
The Senate, however, has applied the statute in reverse, saying that the dereliction of a deputy can serve as grounds for removal of a sheriff. Senators pointed to former school resource officer Scot Peterson and other Broward deputies who failed to confront the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. They used that and other examples as evidence that Israel demonstrated “systemic leadership failures,” and should be removed from office.
“Due process has been served,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “This isn’t an individual failure. This was an institutional failure. Mr. Israel, if removed today, is not being removed for the acts of a single deputy. If he gets removed, it’s because the institution failed.”
All but three Democrats, including all five from Broward County, disagreed. They warned that the shift in approach gave the governor expansive new powers that could be abused.
“The rule of law matters,’’ said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, suggesting that the new precedent will allow DeSantis to remove a sheriff if he doesn’t like his politics, such as “overseeing a sanctuary city.”
“If we don’t follow laws, or we ignore them when it’s convenient or when the politics are convincing us to do so, we more towards anarchy,’’ he said.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation warned that the Senate’s decision to blame Israel for the shooting will make it more difficult for the state to convict Peterson, whose decision to avoid confronting the shooter made him, in Book’s mind, an “accomplice to the murders.”
“While Scott Israel is not free from blame or failure, only one Scott can be held accountable and that’s Scot Peterson,’’ said Book, who served on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission.
Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said after the vote that he accepts that the Senate has established a new standard of accountability for sheriffs.
“The public expects them to be held to a higher standard,’’ he said. “A sheriff is extremely unique in his or her ability to impinge upon the citizens that they are there to protect.” He added that, “if the message ultimately is to sheriffs and other law enforcement that we expect sincere accountability and situations like what happened in Parkland are not to be taken lightly ... then that is not a bad message.”
Voting with the Republicans were Democrats Annette Taddeo of Miami, Randolph Bracy of Orlando, and Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg. Only Taddeo and Rouson explained their votes and both said they were swayed by the appeals of the parents who believed Israel’s failed leadership was responsible for the deaths of 17 students and faculty.
“When we talk about voting our conscience, it truly is about that,” said Taddeo after the vote. “It’s also about looking at all the mostly mothers in my district, like myself, who now hug our kid a little bit tighter and worry every time we drop them off at school every single day. It’s different. It’s totally different. Everything has changed. And I believe that we as a state have to change accordingly.”
Voting with the other Democrats, who argued that the vote should not be about emotion but about precedent, was Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican and former Senate president from Thonotosassa.
Because Israel is a constitutional officer elected by voters, state law requires that the Senate approve or reject the governor’s decision to remove him from office. That gave Israel the opportunity to contest the decision and put the burden on DeSantis to prove that Israel was incompetent and neglected his duty.
In a statement after the vote, Israel apologized for “my poor choice of words and inartful tone in the days following the Parkland murders” and said he will be sorry for that “for the rest of my life.”
Israel, who has announced he will seek reelection, blasted the decision as political, not based on the rule of law.
“Your vote has been stolen and the results of our 2016 election have been overturned,’’ he said. “From 450 miles away, the governor substituted his judgment for yours and installed his own sheriff in Broward County.”
Israel will likely face Tony in a Democratic primary next August. Also campaigning: H. Wayne Clark, Willie Jones, Al Pollock, David Rosenthal, Andrew Maurice Smalling, and Santiago C. Vazquez Jr.
DeSantis laid out 10 claims against Israel and the Senate hired an independent arbiter to hold a trial and review the governor’s claims. The special master, Dudley Goodlette, concluded the governor didn’t prove a single one.
That finding became the biggest factor dividing the Senate. The members of the Broward delegation — Democratic Sens. Book, Farmer, Oscar Braynon II, Kevin Rader and Perry Thurston — all voting against removing Israel, even though many of them said they do not support him, because they considered the Senate’s action an executive overreach.
“Before the release of these findings I thought I knew what my vote would be,” said Rader, whose district includes Parkland. “But after much thought and soul searching, I have concluded that I simply cannot support the governor’s suspension in the absence of enough supporting evidence to meet the high bar that it requires.”
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat and former prosecutor, said he had sympathy for the governor who made a promise to the families of the victims, but he said that when it was clear the governor’s lawyers couldn’t prove the claims, the Senate “moved the goal posts” and set a precedent for elected officials in the future.
“We shifted the burden entirely,’’ Pizzo said. He recalled how Galvano urged them to vote their conscience. “My conscience dictates that may one thousand guilty men go free, so that one innocent be spared [from conviction.]”
Israel’s lawyer, Benedict P. Kuehne, has said he is considering suing the Florida Senate for violating Israel’s due process rights before being removed from an office to which he had been elected by voters.
The vote is considered a victory for DeSantis who has been urging the Senate to remove Israel since he mentioned it in his State of the State speech. After the Senate special master concluded the governor’s attorneys had not made their case, he hired a private attorney to fill in the gaps and allowed his legislative affairs director to lobby members of the Senate.
DeSantis, who said Tuesday that he will not attempt to suspend Israel if voters re-elect him, thanked the Senate for rejecting the special master’s recommendation to reinstate Israel. “I hope the outcome provides some measure of relief to the Parkland families that have been doggedly pursuing accountability,’’ he said in a statement.
For the families of the victims, many of whom traveled to Tallahassee and met with senators, the vote became intensely personal.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that Book, who was one of the first legislators to respond to the families, had “put her party ahead of the safety of the community.” He called her “despicable, disgraceful, shameless —just like Israel. They’re cut from the same cloth.”
Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed at the school, sent out a Tweet of Thurston, leaning back with his eyes closed during the debate. “What is happening in Tallahassee now is a big deal. @PerryThurstonJr, at a minimum you could stay awake for these proceedings. Shameful!!!”
Miami Herald reporter Elizabeth R. Koh contributed to this report.