Florida

Still grieving Parkland parents warn lawmakers not to return former sheriff to his post

A group of parents who lost children in the state’s worst school shooting issued a message to state lawmakers on Monday: They don’t want ousted Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel to get his job back.

Standing in the midafternoon heat in front of the Parkland Public Safety building, about a half-dozen parents expressed outrage over the findings of a state-appointed arbiter who recommended that Israel be returned to office, saying the report glossed over systemic leadership and training failures at the department.

In early January, in one of his first acts as governor, Ron DeSantis removed Israel from office, citing a lack of leadership during the Feb. 14, 2018, massacre as a factor in the horrific toll at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High School, where 17 students and staff members were killed and 17 others injured.

“My little boy Alex was in the first classroom that was attacked,” said Max Schachter, a picture of his 14-year-old son resting near his feet on the grass. “He failed before Feb. 14, during Feb. 14 and after Feb. 14. The Special Master’s report is not binding. I certainly hope they’re going to vote with their conscience.”

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Max Schachter was among those who voiced opposition on Monday to the potential reinstatement of Scott Israel as BSO sheriff. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Manuel Oliver, whose son Joaquin Oliver, 17, was also killed that day, urged lawmakers to “do the right thing” and keep Israel out of office.

“We have a new sheriff in town and guess what, we like him,” said Oliver. “At the end of the day we make the final call. We vote you out or we keep you in.”

Reached by phone Monday, Israel said he worked every day to keep the people of Broward County safe and that he wants to continue on that path. He said he wasn’t going to “push back” on those who lost loved ones, but defended his time in office and blamed the deaths at the high school on the shooter and on Scot Peterson, the fired high school public resource officer who refused to enter the school building during the mass shooting.

“Scot Peterson not going in wasn’t a training issue. The training was industry standard or above. The policies were vetted,” Israel said. “He didn’t go in because, in my opinion, he was scared. I believe that I provided quality leadership to the men and women I worked with and the community all throughout Broward County. Whether the Senate reinstates me or not, I’m still running for office.”

The parents gathered three weeks after Dudley Goodlette, an independent arbitrator appointed as special master in Israel’s case by the state Senate, determined that the former sheriff should be returned to his elected post. The Naples attorney called the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Senior High School a “culmination of individual failures.”

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Parents of Parkland Mass Shooting Victims greet one another prior holding a press conference to stand together in opposition of the potential reinstatement of Scott Israel as BSO sheriff on Monday, October 13, 2019 outside Broward County Sheriff’s Office Substation in Parkland, Florida. Carl Juste cjuste@miamiherald.com

Dudley said Israel and BSO couldn’t escape blame from the state’s worst school shooting, but that the evidence did not support his removal from office.

Goodlette’s findings are not binding. State senators will use the information as a guideline during a special four-hour meeting on Oct. 23, when they are expected to decide to permanently remove Israel or reinstate him. The parents at Monday’s gathering in Parkland said they will be there for the vote.

DeSantis replaced Israel, a former Fort Lauderdale cop and North Bay Village police chief, with relatively unknown Gregory Tony, a former Coral Springs police officer who was running a security company out of state.

In his 34-page report, Goodlette focused on how DeSantis’ attorneys had failed to prove that Israel had overseen institutional failures that caused his deputies to miss early warning signs regarding shooter Nikolas Cruz and that they had botched the response to the attack at the high school.

DeSantis didn’t waste time expressing his displeasure with Goodlette’s findings at the end of September.

“I disagree with the analysis contained in the non-binding recommendation. The senators will render their own independent judgment on Scott Israel. Floridians were appalled by Scott Israel’s repeated failures and expect their senators will provide the accountability that the Parkland families have sought for the past year and a half,” DeSantis said after the report was made public.

As Broward Sheriff, Israel was one of the most powerful Democrats in the state. DeSantis, a Republican, rode to victory last year on a conservative agenda and with the full support of President Donald Trump.

Three days after DeSantis was sworn into office, on Jan. 11, the governor removed Israel. DeSantis blamed the sheriff for poor training and shoddy management that, he claimed, contributed to the massacre. He also blamed Israel for the chaotic response to the Jan. 6, 2017, mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in which former National Guard member Esteban Santiago-Ruiz shot and killed five people and injured six others after taking a flight from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale.

Later, a state commission created to investigate the Parkland shooting took issue with how BSO deputies took cover outside the building instead of engaging the shooter. But the commission did not recommend that Israel be removed.

Goodlette, the special master, wrote in his report that the governor never produced evidence that BSO’s active shooter policy or its training methods were deficient.

“Without evidence that Sheriff Israel omitted training that must be considered necessary, the assertion that he neglected his constitutional mandate is not sustainable,” Goodlette wrote in his report.

If Israel is not returned to office, he has said he will run again, presumably against Tony, in 2020. Tony has not yet filed to run for office, but is expected to do so.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was killed during the shooting, said Israel was a huge failure and pointed to a day three weeks after the attack, when Cruz’s brother, Zachary Cruz, managed to get onto the Parkland campus with his skateboard after a police officer had fallen asleep and missed his entry. He also said Israel said during testimony that most of the deputies working the Parkland area were near retirement.

“He chose not to give us the policing we needed and this is the end result,” Guttenberg said. “The governor did the right thing.”

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