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Broward County

DeSantis suspends Scott Israel — and names Broward’s first African-American sheriff

 

There’s a new sheriff in town.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday appointed Gregory Tony, a former Coral Springs police sergeant, as Broward’s top cop, replacing Scott Israel, the embattled sheriff who has been widely blamed for the chaotic response to the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

After weeks of speculation, DeSantis — surrounded by many of the parents of students who were slain — announced at a news conference at Broward’s public safety building in Fort Lauderdale that he was suspending Israel, a two-term sheriff and 30-year law enforcement veteran. He cited overwhelming failures of leadership that led to egregious breakdowns that may have contributed to the deaths of the 14 students and three staff members.

The gunman, Nikolas Cruz, now 20, was a former student who had made several threats of violence before the killings. At least two of the threats were reported to BSO, but were not adequately investigated, DeSantis said in his suspension order.

Under Florida’s constitution, the governor can suspend a sheriff for neglect of duty or incompetence, which is what DeSantis cited in his official order.

Newly appointed Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony meets with the media after BSO as BSO Sheriff Scott Israel is suspended on Friday, January 11, 2019. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

“I have no interest in dancing on Scott Israel’s political grave,” DeSantis said, “but suffice it to say the massacre might never have happened had Broward had better leadership in the sheriff’s department.”

Israel, at a subsequent news conference, vowed to fight being stripped of his elected office. His lawyer, Stuart Kaplan, said that while mistakes were made in responding to the massacre, they were not serious enough to warrant his suspension or removal from office.

Israel, clad in a blue suit and red tie, called his suspension a “massive power grab by the governor to subvert the will of Broward County voters,’’ and he accused critics of singling him out for his vocal support of gun control.

“I understand it’s easier to say ‘Suspend Sheriff Israel’ than it is to address the real problem — the problem around this nation of gun violence,’’ Israel said at his own news conference at New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.

But the parents of the students who were killed applauded the governor’s action.

“On Feb. 14, my daughter died on the third floor of MSD running down the hallway from an active shooter,” said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime died in the school’s freshman building. “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.”

In a statement, Tony said he would work with those on the sheriff’s staff to facilitate a smooth transition, but several of Israel’s top commanders had already resigned Friday, citing the governor’s unfair treatment of Israel.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis makes a statement on holding government officials accountable in Fort Lauderdale at the Ron Cochran Public Safety Complex courtyard on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. DeSantis named former Coral Springs Sgt. Gregory Tony to replace suspended Sheriff Scott Israel. AL DIAZ adiaz@miamiherald.com

“I understand you have concerns about this transition period,’’ Tony said, speaking to the agency’s 5,000 employees. “I can only provide the immediate comfort of saying this: I am not here for any type of political grandiose or agenda.’’

Tony, the county’s first black sheriff and a Democrat chosen by a Republican governor, takes the reins of the most powerful office in Broward, with a $900 million budget. The agency provides law enforcement to a dozen cities, the county jail and Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

He will serve out the remainder of Israel’s term, which is up in 2020 — unless Israel is successful in persuading the state Senate to reinstate him. Since Republicans control the Legislature, that is seen as a long shot.

Broward Commissioner Steve Geller, a former state senator and a Democrat, said DeSantis was savvy to appoint a black sheriff, which could divide Democratic leadership in Tallahassee. But, while he doesn’t downplay the severity of the tragedy or the mistakes that contributed to it, he said the governor appears to be placing the entire blame for a series of colliding problems on Israel.

“I believe this is an improper suspension,” Geller said. “If you believe in democracy, the voters of Broward County elected Israel. If they think he did a poor job, they can return him to private practice.”

Tony, 40, a native of Philadelphia, is the president of Blue Spear Solutions, a security company that specializes in active shooter and mass casualty training — precisely the kind of training that BSO lacked, according to a report issued by a panel that investigated the response to the rampage. The 458-page Parkland commission report was highly critical of the agency, finding that several deputies failed to try to stop the massacre, or were slow, ill-trained and unprepared.

The commission questioned the urgency of BSO’s response, pointing out that had deputies entered the school building immediately — instead of waiting for instructions — the killer, Cruz, may not have taken so many lives. Cruz, a former student at the school, killed 17 and injured 17 others.

On Friday afternoon, dozens of people gathered hours before DeSantis’ arrival in anticipation of Israel’s announced suspension at the public safety building. Several parents of slain Parkland students, including Tony Montalto, Max Schachter and Guttenberg, were among them. Some wore Trump hats. Others carried signs blasting Israel.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel takes the microphone at a CNN town hall meeting on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre, where he received cheers for ‘calling B.S.’ on the NRA. In the days and weeks that followed, the performance of his deputies at Parkland came under increased scrutiny. Michael Laughlin Sun Sentinel

Guttenberg said Israel’s ouster was “long overdue.”

“A change was needed,” he said. “I’m glad that change is here today.”

Tony moved to Tallahassee after high school, hoping to play on the Florida State football team. He got his chance as a walk-on fullback but was later sidelined with a back injury, according to Warchant.com.

He graduated with a criminal justice degree and was hired in 2005 by Coral Springs, where he served on the SWAT team for five years and was promoted to sergeant in 2014. He started his company the following year and retired in 2016.

His company offers training programs for law enforcement and civilians, focusing on practices that preserve life, including lifesaving bleeding control techniques, according to the firm’s website.

The 15-member Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission said BSO’s active shooter training was not only inadequate, but that several deputies who were interviewed after the shootings said they couldn’t remember the last time they received the training.

The commission found a variety of other problems, including a patchy 911 county communications network, faulty radios and an ineffective command system.

Despite the avalanche of errors, Israel remained steadfast in his defense of his leadership and the response of his agency.

Reading from a prepared statement, he rattled off a handful of previous mass casualty incidents in Florida, including the Pulse night club shooting, pointing out that no law enforcement officials or political leaders were suspended after those events.

“The difference: I spoke out about gun violence. I will continue for the rest of my days on earth to speak out about gun violence. Families and victims deserve that.’’

Israel, 62, a native New Yorker and son of a New York City homicide detective, was elected in 2012 after 30 years with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. During his tenure at BSO, he touted a sharp drop in violent crime in Broward, the state’s second most populous county and a Democratic stronghold.

A registered Republican until switching parties to run for sheriff in 2008, Israel lost to Republican Al Lamberti that year.

After winning the next time, Israel immediately fired a slew of Lamberti’s staff — just days before Christmas — underscoring the political nature of the job, and began hiring members of his election team, childhood friends, politically connected staffers, former Fort Lauderdale cops and sheriff’s deputies who had fallen out of favor with Lamberti.

Then, at his swearing in, Israel invited a rapper with a long arrest sheet to perform and welcomed ex-sheriff Ken Jenne, a convicted felon who’d committed tax evasion and mail fraud, to the ceremony. During his rocky first year in office, he was slapped with a whistle-blower lawsuit by a BSO homicide detective who claimed he was transferred to road patrol by Israel as retribution for reporting that two fellow law enforcement officers had ordered a police dog to viciously attack a suspect for no reason.

In 2012, the Florida Ethics Commission found probable cause that he improperly accepted gifts, a holiday yacht party and a cruise from a supporter, but the panel declined to take action, citing his newness to the job.

Israel was lauded for some of his initiatives. He won the civil rights award in 2014 from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for a homeless outreach program and he garnered praise for working with the African-American community on a program to give juveniles civil citations instead of jail time for nonviolent offenses.

His positions have often put him at odds with other Florida sheriffs. In 2013, he urged legislative changes to restrict Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. A vocal proponent of gun-control measures, Israel has often used shooting tragedies as a pulpit to speak about the issue, earning him animosity from the NRA.

In a 2017 interview with the Herald, Israel said he was proud of his independent streak.

“All I’m going to do is speak my mind,’’ he said. “If I’m on an island, I’m on an island. I’m not going to worry about who is with me or who is not.’’

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