Florida Sheriff On the Defensive After School Shooting

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel as he meets with law enforcement officers at Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Pompano Beach, Fla., Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, following Wednesday’s shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Broward County Sheriff, office under scrutiny

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — The outspoken Florida sheriff whose deputies responded to the Parkland school shooting usually deals with critics head on. But in recent days, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel has been mostly silent.

He is taking heat from Republicans and gun rights activists who believe the sheriff is focusing on guns and not accepting responsibility for failing to stop the school gunman before the shooting — and for his deputies not charging into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Israel ducked reporters outside a rally Thursday and has refused most interview requests, including one for this story. Meanwhile, his conservative critics have taken to the internet and airwaves to blast him.

This contrasts with the days after the Feb. 14 shooting when Israel and his deputies were lauded for their work and he railed against the “detestable” killer who took down 17 people. He got cheers from his community when he told National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch during a nationally televised town hall she wasn’t supporting gun violence survivors until she said: “‘I want less weapons.’”

A tanned and muscular lawman with a New York accent, Israel for years has called for tougher gun laws in Florida. His stance created critics long before the school shooting.

The recent backlash began the day after the town hall, when the 61-year-old Democrat revealed that Deputy Scot Peterson, the school resource officer at Stoneman Douglas High, didn’t run into the school to confront 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz. Peterson, who says he thought the shots were coming from outside, retired rather than accept a suspension.

Then reports surfaced that three other Broward deputies ignored exhortations from Coral Springs police officers to join them in charging the building. On top of that, the sheriff learned his agency received almost two dozen calls about Cruz in the years before the shooting, but never arrested him. That included a caller who said in November that Cruz was a potential school shooter.

Israel says while Cruz was troubled, he never did anything “arrestable.” And he said the state’s statutes for involuntarily incarcerating the mentally ill are weak.

Steve Bucci, a former Army special operations officer, wrote in a column for the conservative website The Daily Signal that Israel should stop putting all the blame on Peterson while also saying on CNN, “I’ve given amazing leadership.”

“If he was too incompetent to recognize the shooter was still firing inside the building, it is on you, sheriff. Leaders take responsibility,” Bucci wrote.

Comparing Israel to the mythological lawman epitomized by Wyatt Earp, National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote Israel is a reminder that a sheriff “can be a hack politician whose primary concern is protecting his own political reputation and little fief.”

Conspiracy sites falsely accused Israel of being tied to terror groups and Hamas. Photographs of him visiting mosques with Deputy Nezar Hamze, a Muslim who volunteers with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, sparked headlines such as “Sheriff Embraces Deputy Hamas!”

Democrats have been slow to support Israel. Several didn’t return calls for this story. Broward Democratic Party chair Cynthia Busch said until the investigations are done, it’s too early to assess Israel’s performance.

The Stoneman Douglas slayings are personal for Israel — his triplet sons graduated from the school in 2015, with two playing football. He knew assistant coach Aaron Feis, who died shielding students from gunfire.

Israel, the son of a New York City homicide detective, joined the Fort Lauderdale Police Department in 1979 as a patrol officer and rose through the ranks. He worked narcotics and got into a 1985 shootout with two purse snatchers — no one was hit.

In those early years, he was investigated 10 times by internal affairs, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, mostly for excessive force. He was cleared each time. He received 59 commendations.

He made captain, leading the city’s SWAT team, before becoming police chief of North Bay Village, a small Miami suburb, in 2004.

In 2007, he switched from Republican to Democrat — a must in heavily Democratic Broward County. He ran for sheriff in 2008 but narrowly lost, and eventually won in 2012. After taking office, he received criticism over his friendship with notorious Republican operative Roger Stone and for accepting gifts from a wealthy benefactor. However, he has been seen as innovative by community leaders.

Shortly after his second term began, a man retrieved a handgun from his luggage at Fort Lauderdale’s airport and opened fire, killing six. While Israel’s deputies apprehended him within seconds, the draft of a county report said Israel and others didn’t control the chaos, leaving passengers in fear for hours. He criticized the draft, and the final version was less harsh.

“Critics are going to criticize,” he said then.


By Terry Spencer of the Associated Press