Update: The Florida state Senate on Wednesday voted to remove Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office. The 25-15 vote finalizes Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order suspending Israel following his department’s response to two mass shootings — in 2017 at the Fort Lauderdale airport and in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Previous: Broward County ex-Sheriff Scott Israel wants his badge back, the governor says he doesn’t deserve it and the Florida Senate must decide Wednesday how the showdown ends.
On Monday, the state Senate’s rules committee voted narrowly to support Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to suspend the sheriff following his department’s response to two deadly mass shootings — this, despite a Senate-appointed special master recommending Israel be reinstated.
The committee’s nonbinding recommendation heads to the full Senate, which is scheduled to kick off its session at 2 p.m. ET. A vote is expected to follow senators’ debate.
If the tight special session vote wasn’t indicative of the division Israel’s ouster has ignited in the state, proponents and opponents of his reinstatement made it clear.
Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concern about the specter of the state’s chief executive removing a locally elected official, and Israel’s supporters showed up at the Capitol In Tallahassee wearing “The People’s Sheriff” buttons. They told the committee it should be voters who elected Israel deciding his fate, not the governor.
“We put him in,” one woman said. “It we want him out, we will vote him out.”
Israel’s critics, including some family members of those killed in the February 14, 2018, shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, contend the blame falls on Israel.
Ryan Petty, whose daughter, Alaina, was killed, told Israel he was rekindling parents’ pain and pleaded with the ex-lawman to stop fighting for his job. Gena Hoyer — whose son, Luke, would’ve celebrated his 17th birthday this week — said permanently booting Israel “is our first step in the right direction.”
“We have to hold people accountable for their failures because that is the only way people will get serious about fixing the problems,” Hoyer said.
The mother of Aaron Feis, the coach who died shielding students, struggled to tell the committee through tears, “I don’t want him reinstated.”
Politics or accountability?
Whatever the Senate’s decision, it will be controversial. DeSantis suspended Israel for his response to the Parkland shooting, which left 17 people dead, and the Fort Lauderdale airport attack the year before, in which five were killed, leaving deep scars on the community.
Florida law allows DeSantis to suspend a sheriff for malfeasance or neglect of duty. It also allows him to appoint an interim sheriff, but the Senate wields the power to determine if the governor’s rationale for suspension is legitimate.
In his executive order, the governor alleged Israel was incompetent and negligent in his duties related to the shootings.
Israel has countered that his removal by a GOP governor is political. Israel is a Democrat, first elected in 2012 and re-elected in 2016. He has already filed the paperwork to run in 2020.
In Monday’s vote, Israel’s fellow Democrats, including the four senators representing Broward County, supported his reinstatement.
One of the Broward lawmakers, Sen. Lauren Book, said her decision was not about politics. It’s about holding the school resource officer, Deputy Scot Peterson, accountable for his alleged inaction, she said.
Peterson retired from his position and faces charges of culpable negligence, perjury and seven counts of felony neglect of a child. His attorney said in June the charges are politically motivated.
Book understands Stoneman Douglas parents and others in the community want Israel to face consequences, she said, “but the thing that has always, always eaten me up inside is that one deputy didn’t move for 48 minutes — 48 minutes, while gunshots were going off, while you could hear them. He knew where they were. He was dropped off at the front door of that building.”
“I believe that if we do not reinstate Mr. Israel that Deputy Peterson walks because you can’t have it both ways,” Book said. “For me, the thing that I weigh the most is the fact that I want to hold this coward accountable.”
Israel’s lawyer: No one ‘acted perfectly’
Book’s argument echoed that of the appointed special master, attorney and former GOP lawmaker J. Dudley Goodlette, who is recommending the Senate reinstate Israel.
In his 34-page report last month, Goodlette wrote that the sheriff and his office are not blameless in the Parkland response, but “the evidence offered has not demonstrated that Sheriff Israel should be removed from office based on this incident.”
The blame falls on multiple people, most notably on Peterson, he said.
“While the governor has offered a plethora of criticism, he has not shown that Sheriff Israel’s policies, procedures or trainings on active shooter situations are inconsistent with Florida law enforcement standards,” Goodlette said.
A lawyer representing DeSantis said the governor has considered multiple factors, including the sheriff’s department’s improper response to reports about the Parkland shooter prior to the massacre and deputies’ failure to engage the shooter once the massacre began.
Israel also knew of problems with his department’s response to the January 2017 Fort Lauderdale airport shooting and did nothing to rectify them in the 13 months preceding the Stoneman Douglas attack, attorney George Levesque said.
“The law makes him responsible for the acts of his deputies,” Levesque said. “It is generally held that a sheriff and his deputy are one and the same person, and the acts of the deputy may be imputed to the sheriff.”
Israel’s lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, argued that DeSantis had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support Israel’s removal. That alone should be cause for reinstatement, he said.
“Sheriff Israel has never, never taken the position that anybody, including himself, acted perfectly,” the lawyer said. “He does, however, assert the position that officers were trained and knew their responsibility and had to act based on knowledge and information they had.”
If the rules committee’s Monday vote, which fell largely along party lines, is a harbinger, Israel could be officially out of the job, as 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats compose the state Senate. But if Israel is re-elected in 2020, DeSantis says he “will not suspend him for previous actions of neglect of duty and incompetence,” spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre told CNN.