TALLAHASSEE — Stripped of his uniform and badge, ousted Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for the first time made a direct appeal to a Senate special master Tuesday as he tries to get his job back after Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended him from office because of the mass shooting at a Parkland high school last year.
Israel, clad in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, appeared relaxed and at ease throughout the daylong hearing before special master Dudley Goodlette, a former Republican state representative from Naples who was appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano to oversee what is essentially a two-day trial.
DeSantis made Israel’s suspension one of his first acts after taking office as governor in January, alleging in an executive order that “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” by Israel were connected to the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 14 students and three faculty members dead.
The Republican governor also accused Israel of mishandling the response to a mass shooting at Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport in 2017 that resulted in five deaths.
Israel, a Democrat, has appealed the suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the power to reinstate or remove elected officials.
The suspended sheriff’s testimony Tuesday capped a day of appearances by a handful of former and current law enforcement officials who spoke on his behalf.
DeSantis’ lawyers did not call witnesses, but Israel spent much of his nearly 70-minute questioning by his lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, disputing the case laid out by DeSantis’ deputy general counsel, Nicholas Primrose, earlier in the day.
In his opening argument, Primrose blamed Israel for the “chaos” that occurred in the aftermath of the airport shooting.
“Confusion, unclear command orders and a lack of training” of deputies resulted in an “abysmal response,” Primrose said, pointing to a preliminary report conducted by the sheriff’s office following the airport shooting.
“There were many failures that could have been prevented if Scott Israel prioritized training and policies specific to the airport,” Primrose argued.
But Israel countered that his deputies were properly trained and praised his office’s handling of the event.
“Of course there was confusion and chaos at the airport. There were 20,000 people running haphazardly,” Israel said, adding that people were hiding under cars after shots were fired. “Did he think this was a bakery on a Saturday morning at Publix? People were dying.”
Israel, who spent more than three decades in law enforcement before his election as Broward sheriff in 2012, said he would not have handled the airport shooting differently.
“I never went home to be more proud of an agency and more proud of my patch,” said Israel, who was re-elected in a landslide in 2016.
Primrose also blamed what he called Israel’s inadequate training of deputies and flawed policies for the 17 deaths at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last year
“His failures resulted in chaotic situations that could have been avoided and the deaths of numerous victims who should have been saved,” the governor’s lawyer said.
Israel, who will complete his testimony Wednesday morning, took umbrage at Primrose’s characterization of his performance, and bristled at being called “incompetent” and “negligent” in DeSantis’ suspension order.
In his thick New York accent, Israel spoke about initiating “grocery giveaways” and gun buy-backs after his election to strengthen the relationship between his office and residents long leery of law enforcement.
“I’m a hard-working, studious person who cares deeply about the community. I know how incredibly serious it is. I know these hearings are about taking my livelihood away from me. But incompetent or negligent? No, sir,” he said.
Israel also said former Gov. Rick Scott had promised not to take any action in response to the Parkland massacre until the completion of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into what was one of the country’s worst school shootings.
On the campaign trail last year, however, DeSantis repeatedly promised to remove Israel from office if he was elected.
“You can just imagine how demoralizing it was to me and my family to hear in March, two months before the investigations had even commenced, and I hear a candidate for governor say, ‘I would suspend that guy.’ That’s not the way America should be run,” Israel said.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement probe concluded this month with the arrest of Scot Peterson, the school’s former resource officer. That came about five months after DeSantis suspended Israel.
“To this day, I’ve never met or had a conversation with Gov. DeSantis,” Israel said. “I’m 63 years old. I spent 40 years in law enforcement, and sadly he didn’t even think it was important enough for me to fly to Tallahassee or meet him somewhere to discuss my views, the facts that I know, instead of all these false narratives that are out there. … To this very day, I think I deserve that opportunity.”
Earlier, Primrose blamed Israel for the failure of Peterson — who was captured on videotape hovering outside a building at the high school as alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets — to enter the school. Primrose added the ousted sheriff is also responsible for the failure of two other deputies to follow up on previous complaints about Cruz.
“It’s baffling that Scott Israel accepts zero responsibility for the omissions and neglect for the deputies he appoints,” he said. “This is a clear textbook case of the head of an agency being wholly responsible for the failures of his agents.”
But, questioning Israel’s witnesses, Kuehne stressed that Israel’s office had received multiple accreditations and was considered a national model.
Much of the testimony focused on the office’s “active shooter” policy that said a deputy “may” enter the area where an active shooter is located, an issue that was included as one of Israel’s shortcomings in the governor’s executive order and which has become a flashpoint in the case.
Requiring law enforcement officers to enter what could be a booby-trapped building or open a door with a shooter on the other side doesn’t make sense, said Robert Pusins, a former executive director with the Broward Sheriff’s Office who is a national expert on police use of deadly force.
“To law enforcement, it is a ‘false imperative’ because they know you have to consider all of the factors when you make a rational, reasonable decision to pursue,” Pusins said.
At the outset of the hearing Tuesday morning, lawyers for Israel failed to convince Goodlette to keep the case “open” until the full FDLE report in the Peterson case is released. The investigation could yield information that may help Israel’s case, lawyer Stuart Kaplan argued.
Israel’s lawyers may want to subpoena the state’s investigators, Kaplan said.
“What you have asked us to do is to essentially put the cart before the horse,” he told Goodlette. “It flies in the face of due process fundamental fairness.”
But Goodlette said that he is just the first stop in the Senate’s process. Israel’s team will have time to submit additional information to the Senate Rules Committee, which will consider the special master’s recommendation. The committee is unlikely to meet before lawmakers return to Tallahassee in the fall.
“Additional information may come in forever, frankly,” Goodlette said. “But I’m not going to continue these proceedings into the indefinite future.”