Sheriff Scott Israel removed over failures during Parkland shooting, replaced by Gregory Tony
Anthony Man, Lisa J. Huriash, Linda Trischitta and Brittany WallmanContact Reporters
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Gov. Ron DeSantis removed Broward Sheriff Scott Israel from office Friday, replacing him after 10 months of turmoil spawned by the slaughter of 17 staff and students in Parkland.
The new governor replaced Israel with former Coral Springs Police Sgt. Gregory Tony, 40, who has a background in active-shooter training and becomes the first black sheriff in Broward County’s history.
DeSantis announced the suspension from the Broward Sheriff’s Office headquarters while the displaced former sheriff prepared his response from a church in northwest Fort Lauderdale.
“I have no interest in dancing on Scott Israel’s political grave,” DeSantis said of the Democratic former sheriff, “but suffice it to say the massacre might never have happened had Broward had better leadership in the sheriff’s department.”
In his executive order, the governor cited Israel for incompetence and neglect of duty. DeSantis said Israel “egregiously failed in his duties” by not properly training deputies, and not maintaining “a culture of vigilance and thoroughness,” among other weaknesses.
The suspension caps a nearly year-long series of revelations that exposed the failure of Broward sheriff’s deputies to run in to save children at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Some deputies said they couldn’t remember when they’d last been trained to handle an active shooter, even though the agency had a confused, chaotic response to a mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017.
Israel’s leadership of the agency has come under intense scrutiny, and he’s received extensive criticism over the massacre in which 17 people were killed and 17 wounded on Valentine’s Day.
Though he enjoyed strong popularity in Broward before the shooting, Israel’s star fell in the aftermath, particularly after a disastrous appearance on CNNin which he praised his own leadership and glossed over his agency’s mistakes.
After he was removed from office Friday, Israel, backed by religious leaders and supporters, accused the governor of carrying out a political mission because the sheriff had spoken out against gun violence. Donning a blue pinstripe suit and red tie instead of his usual green BSO uniform, Israel said he would seek every avenue to contest the suspension, including making his case in a hearing before the Florida Senate.
“This was about politics, not about Parkland,” Israel said.
Israel’s attorney Stuart Kaplan said while mistakes occurred, the shooter is the only person responsible for the lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Many family members of victims and people in Parkland, where the school is located, blame Israel for the agency’s handling of the teenage killer during interactions before the shooting, and for the way it handled the unfolding tragedy. Coral Springs officers showed valor, running into the school. They reported being routinely trained to run toward gunfire. Many of the BSO deputies, meanwhile, crouched behind trees or cars and didn’t try to enter the school.
Israel had changed the policy from deputies “shall” go in after an active shooter, to they “may” go in — another flaw cited by DeSantis. Israel recently changed it back.
“On Feb. 14, my daughter died on the third floor of MSD running down the hallway from an active shooter,” one of the grieving parents, Fred Guttenberg, said Friday at the announcement. “One more second, and she makes it into the stairwell. She needed one more second. If anybody wants to know what failure means, and lack of response, my daughter would have lived if somebody could have just given her one more second.”
Andy Pollock, whose daughter Meadow was killed, emceed the parents’ portion of the event, where other family members of victims spoke.
The Florida Constitution gives the governor power to suspend public officials for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty.” Governors routinely remove public officials who are arrested or charged with crimes, but it is unusual to remove an officeholder who does not face criminal charges.
Broward Commissioner Nan Rich said she doesn’t think the County Commission will attempt to challenge Israel’s suspension, even though she doesn’t agree with it.
“I’m personally just very concerned about our democracy and all these suggestions and recommendations about removing people that have been elected and have not been indicted of any crime,” Rich said. “We live in a democracy, not an autocracy, and I would just like to maintain it.”
It was the second removal of a countywide elected official in Broward in two months. Former Gov. Rick Scott suspended elections supervisor Dr. Brenda Snipes at the end of November. Snipes had already submitted a letter of resignation.
At Broward Sheriff’s headquarters, an unusually large media throng gathered Friday for the announcement. A stream of public officials appeared, including Republican state Rep. Chip LaMarca, new state Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz of Parkland, and Coral Springs Commissioner Joshua Simmons.
Protesters also appeared, including one man who is part of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, people active in Donald Trump clubs in Broward and Palm Beachcounties, and Republican Party activists from Broward and Palm Beach counties.
During the event, the crowd applauded Parkland parents who spoke, and reacted negatively to mention of Scott Israel. At one point, when the governor mentioned his name, one person in the crowd – just one – yelled “lock him up.”
Reaction to the removal was mixed in Broward, where most elected officials carry the same Democrat label that Israel does.
Broward Commissioner Steve Geller, a Democrat and former state senator, doesn’t think DeSantis had a legal basis for removing Israel.
Broward Commissioner Michael Udine, who represents the Parkland area, said he wasn’t looking “into the politics of this.” He was more focused on accountability.
“I think that the MSD report and common sense leadership principles, and listening to all the families with 17 dead relatives, I think it made it clear that there had to be some kind of changes made in that organization,” said Udine, also a Democrat.
A report from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission detailed a series of problems with the agency’s performance during the massacre.
Attorney General Ashley Moody issued a statement saying there is ample justification in that report for Israel’s removal, including radio failures that indicate a lack of attention to resources, a failure to establish a command post and take control of the shooting response, a lack of coordination with other responding agencies, lack of training, and failures by deputies who encountered the shooter before Feb. 14.
Anticipating the suspension, five of Israel’s command staff submitted separation forms.
The ranking deputies who said they were leaving for personal reasons are Col. John “Jack” Dale, who wrote on his form, “Actions by governor not in the best interest of public safety” and Undersheriff Steve Kinsey, the second in command at the agency under Israel, who wrote on his form, “Due to the sheriff being suspended unjustly.”
Dale was executive director for BSO’s department of professional standards and the department of investigations.
Major Kevin S. Shults, who was in charge of training, also resigned.
Dale, Kinsey and Shults were among many high-ranking officials Israel hired from his former workplace, Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
Major Chadwick Wagner, a former Hollywood police chief, who served as BSO human resources director, said his reason for leaving included “the unjust decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove Broward County Sheriff Scott J. Israel. Sheriff Israel has been twice elected by Broward County residents. This is a decision that only the resident voters of Broward County should decide.”
Col. James Polan retired effective Thursday, and did not comment on his form.
Broward Sheriff’s Sgt. Anthony Marciano, president of the Federation of Public Employees union, representing detention deputies, courtroom deputies and others, said Israel made some missteps: He spoke publicly too soon, when investigations were still going on; he didn’t take responsibility; and he unnecessarily “poked a big bear that he didn’t need to poke” when he addressed the National Rifle Association, Marciano said.
But Marciano said Israel’s fate would have better been left to voters.
“I listened to all the MSD commission meetings, and the sheriff said one thing that should have resonated everybody: ‘You can’t teach courage to people,’ ” Marciano said.
Rod Skirvin, president of the Broward County Police Benevolent Association, which is attempting to regain representation of deputies, said the public’s confidence in Israel was shaken.
“I think sometimes situations dictate that change has to be made just to give things a fresh face and new beginnings,” Skirvin said.
Jeff Bell, head of the deputies’ International Union of Police Associations and a member of DeSantis’ transition team, had a more harsh assessment.
“He has turned this agency, the largest fully accredited sheriff’s office in the country, into a political machine for his own well-being,” Bell said. “He’s incompetent and should be removed permanently before anyone else is killed on his watch.”
Tory Fatjo, president of the Broward County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics union, said the disruption in leadership wouldn’t keep people from doing their jobs.
”I’m leading a group of professionals who will serve the citizens of Broward County and love our agency and will do what we do, under any sheriff, as we always have,” Fatjo said.
The new sheriff, Tony, worked for 12 years as an officer and then sergeant in Coral Springs. His former boss, Coral Springs Chief Clyde Parry, said Tony had a “bright future” and he was sorry to see him leave the agency in 2016.
Tony and his wife, Holly, a nurse, operate Blue Spear Solutions, which specializes in active-shooter training and provides threat assessments on schools and other businesses. Tony was connected with the new governor by Pollock.
“We all went to the same gym together and that’s where we all met,” Pollock said after the event Friday. “I think he’s going to do a wonderful job and the community’s going to get behind him, and the kids are going to be safer, and the community as a whole will be safer.”
Pollock said his next target is Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, though DeSantis said he isn’t sure if he has the authority to suspend an appointed superintendent. Pollock said he’d see to it himself that Runcie loses his job.
“I get things done,” Pollock said, “and there’s nothing on this planet that I can’t get done, especially since my daughter was murdered. And I have the heart of a lion, OK, and I’m not going anywhere.”
DeSantis said Tony was “tailor-made” for the job.
Tony is building a transition team and is expected to name his undersheriff as early as this weekend, a source told the Sun Sentinel.
“I am not here for any type of political grandiose agenda,” Sheriff Tony said in his public remarks Friday. “I’m here to serve.”
Staff writers Tonya Alanez, Larry Barszewski, and Skyler Swisher contributed to this report.