57ºF

Fate of Broward County sheriff sparks fiery hearing

Scott Israel: 'There's nothing incompetent or negligent about me'

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In his quest to get his old job back, Scott Israel spent hours jousting with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ lawyer Wednesday in a series of combative exchanges highlighting two deadly mass shootings in Broward County that led to the former sheriff’s suspension.

Israel’s seven hours of testimony Wednesday concluded a two-day hearing before a Senate special master in an appeal filed by the veteran law enforcement official after DeSantis stripped him of the sheriff’s post shortly after the Republican governor took office in January.

In his suspension order, DeSantis alleged that “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” by Israel were connected to the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and faculty members dead.

DeSantis’ executive order also blamed Israel for mishandling the response to a mass shooting at Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport that resulted in five deaths.

“The state didn’t prove their case. There’s nothing incompetent or negligent about me. That’s not who I am. That’s not how I work. That’s not how I performed, and I hope the senators realize that and vote that way, but that’s their vote,” Israel, 63, told reporters after the hearing.

Israel appealed his suspension to the Senate, which has the authority to reinstate or remove elected officials. Senate Special Master Dudley Goodlette, who oversaw what was essentially a trial, will make recommendations to Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. The Senate Rules Committee will consider Goodlette’s recommendations when lawmakers return to Tallahassee in the fall, and the full Senate will make a final decision on Israel’s fate.

Israel and his lawyers maintain that the suspension, something DeSantis pledged to do while running for office last year, was a political ploy aimed at winning favor with voters in Democrat-rich Broward County and supporters of the National Rifle Association.

After spending hours Tuesday answering questions from his lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, Israel on Wednesday dueled with DeSantis’ deputy general counsel, Nicholas Primrose, who repeatedly linked the fatal incidents to what he described as Israel’s failure to adequately train deputies, a position Israel staunchly disputed.

Primrose, who did not call any witnesses, concentrated more than half of his time grilling Israel on the airport shooting, before turning to last year’s horrific school massacre.

The governor’s lawyer criticized Israel’s policy of requiring active shooter training for school resource officers just once every three years, which Primrose implied was inadequate.

And Primrose blamed Israel for the failure of two deputies to follow up on interactions with alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz, including on one report that Cruz would be responsible for “the next Columbine.” The Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting might never have happened if Israel’s office had acted on the reports, Primrose implied.

Israel said deputies failed to properly document the reports about Cruz, but that, even if they had followed procedure, there was nothing the sheriff’s office could have done to prevent Cruz from going on the Valentine’s Day rampage at the school he once attended.

Primrose persisted, repeatedly pushing Israel about why he did not require all threats of school shootings to be reported directly to him.

“If school safety was so important to you, why did you not have a policy in 2016 that if any of your deputies had credible information regarding shooting (at) a school, that it get automatically sent to the top, to you?” Primrose asked.

Israel said that his office received 700,000 calls each year.

“You’re not going to bring everything to a sheriff. It’s really a bizarre question,” he responded.

“Is it really that ridiculous of a policy, if it has to do with something you testified was so important to your agency… that you would want to know if there’s a threat of a school shooting?” Primrose countered, repeatedly referring to Cruz as “the shooter.”

“A shooter?” Israel shot back. “Where do you come up with the word ‘shooter?’ This was two years before. … You’re asking a question based on what you know in 2019.”

The back and forth was just one of many in which a combative Israel -- at one point admonishing Primrose for “trying to put words into my mouth” -- and an equally truculent Primrose crossed swords.

Israel repeatedly refused to answer Primrose, challenging the lawyer for making statements rather than asking questions.

For example, Israel at one point said: “I’m not trying to be argumentative, but you’re telling me what I don’t think instead of asking me a question and letting me answer it.”

Primrose also concentrated on Scot Peterson, the long-serving resource officer at the Parkland school who was seen on videotape hovering outside a building as Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets inside.

Peterson, who retired after Israel announced he intended to suspend the deputy, was arrested this month following a Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s investigation into the shooting.

Primrose played a videotape of a June 2018 “Today” morning show interview with Peterson, in which the officer claimed he had followed the sheriff’s office policy by remaining outside the building -- an assertion Israel vehemently denied.

The resource officer’s failure to enter the building “had nothing to do with training,” insisted Israel, whose triplets had attended the school he referred to as “Stoneman Douglas,” where he had also coached football.

“It had nothing to do with policies. Deputy Peterson didn’t go in because he was afraid. You can see the fear in the video,” Israel, a former SWAT commander, said. “He was afraid to go in.”

But Primrose pointed out that Peterson had taken part in just two active-shooter training exercises over a six-year period.

Kuehne later said the FDLE charging document found probable cause that Peterson had lied about his training.

“Peterson had all the tools,” Israel said. “No matter what you did … he was just a coward who wasn’t going to act.”

Primrose also relied on findings of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, a state-created panel that issued a 458-page report after a months-long investigation.

The panel, chaired by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, took issue with Israel’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 DeSantis’ executive order and which has become a flashpoint in the case.

Primrose pointed to a highlighted portion of the report that said Israel’s policy “is insufficient and fails to unequivocally convey the expectation that deputies are expected to immediately enter an active assailant scene when gunfire is active.”

But earlier in the day, Israel called the “shall” or “may” issue a “red herring.”

“The purpose of the policy is to give the officer discretion not to go on a suicide mission,” Israel said.

Primrose asked why Israel changed the policy to include the word “shall” following the mass shooting in Parkland.

Israel said the switch was based on the recommendation of Gualtieri, who is a lawyer.

“I felt that I was being asked to do it, in the spirit of full cooperation with the commission, that’s why I did it,” Israel said.

After reading a state law that says sheriffs are responsible for the “neglect and default” of their deputies, Primrose tried to get Israel to take the blame for Peterson’s behavior, saying that six lives could have been saved if the resource office had gone into the building.

But Israel didn’t bite.

“The only person, the only person responsible for the loss of lives is a horrific, evil killer that did things through sheer evil. The responsibility of taking human life, only the killer did that,” he said.