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Florida Senate votes to remove Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office

Posted at 8:51 AM, Oct 24, 2019

The Florida Senate on Wednesday voted to officially remove Scott Israel from his elected position as the Broward County sheriff .

The 25-15 vote finalizes Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order suspending Israel from the position due to allegations of neglect of duty and failures in his department's responses to mass shootings in 2017 at the Fort Lauderdale airport and in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Wednesday's vote agrees with a recommendation by the Senate Rules Committee, which voted narrowly Monday night to support DeSantis' decision to suspend Israel. That was despite a Senate-appointed special master recommending Israel be reinstated.

The five state senators representing portions of Broward County voted to reinstate the former sheriff.

Families of some of the victims in the Parkland shooting, who attended proceedings on Monday and Wednesday, praised the decision.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed in the shooting, said families worked tirelessly over the past week to make sure the ex-sheriff wouldn't be reinstated.

"We did it for everyone in the community and for the thousands of kids that attend school in Broward," he told CNN after the vote. "They could be rest assured now that that county will be a lot safer without ... this failed sheriff in Broward County," Pollack said.

He said Israel "has to be judged by his systematic failures and the failures of individuals because that's what leadership is."

'Politics won the day,' the ex-sheriff says

Israel, a Democrat, has said he believes the Republican governor had political motives for removing him.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Wednesday, Israel said he was "sad to report that politics won the day."

"Your vote has been stolen and the results of our 2016 election have been overturned. From 450 miles away, the Governor substituted his judgement for yours and installed his own sheriff in Broward County," he said addressing voters.

Israel, who was elected sheriff in 2012 and 2016, has said he will run again in 2020.

If Israel is re-elected in 2020, DeSantis says he "will not suspend him for previous actions of neglect of duty and incompetence," spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferre told CNN.

Israel's attorney, Ben Kuehne, told CNN they are evaluating the next step.

"This was a result that was not based on evidence. It was not based on law. It was based on something else that was not what the constitution provides," he said.

"And that's a tragedy for all the people, not just of Broward County, but for all the people of Florida."

Israel's ouster ignited divisions

DeSantis said in a statement, "I hope the outcome provides some measure of relief to the Parkland families that have been doggedly pursuing accountability."

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concern about the specter of the state's chief executive removing a locally elected official, and Israel's supporters showed up at the Capitol In Tallahassee wearing "The People's Sheriff" buttons. They told the committee Monday it should be voters who elected Israel deciding his fate, not the governor.

"We put him in," one woman said. "It we want him out, we will vote him out."

Israel's critics, including some family members of those killed in the February 14, 2018, shooting in Parkland, contend the blame falls on Israel.

Ryan Petty, whose daughter, Alaina, was killed, told Israel he was rekindling parents' pain and pleaded with the ex-lawman to stop fighting for his job.

Before Wednesday's vote, Republican Sen. Tom Lee argued Israel was unpopular but is entitled to due process by the Senate and the special master.

" Nikolas Cruz is going to be afforded that process -- why should we not also give it to the sheriff?" Lee said, referring to the Parkland shooter.

Lee, the only Republican to vote to reinstate Israel, said the emotion of parents of the Parkland victims can't "trump the fact that we are setting a new precedent here."

Sen. Darryl Ervin Rouson , a Democrat, said his vote to remove Israel is a vote of his conscience.

"We can't reinstate the lives of those lost on February 14 but we can choose to not reinstate a man who oversaw the development of policies, procedures and training that failed to protect those lives," he said before the vote.

Sen. Annette Taddeo , a Democrat, said lawmakers didn't listen to Parkland parents when they urged them not to arm teachers and ban assault weapons. She told a story of getting a call from a Parkland parent as she packed Sunday to travel to the capitol. Taddeo said she didn't have time to take the call, which would have made her late.

She recalled her daughter telling her: "Mommy, if I would've died in Parkland, you would want them to take that call."

"So, I am taking the call of the parents. I understand, and I will vote to recommend the suspension of Sheriff Israel," she said.

Rouson and Taddeo were among three Democrats who voted to remove Israel.

Politics or accountability?

DeSantis suspended Israel for his response to the Parkland shooting , which left 17 people dead, and the Fort Lauderdale airport attack the year before, in which five were killed, leaving deep scars on the community.

Florida law allows DeSantis to suspend a sheriff for malfeasance or neglect of duty. It also allows him to appoint an interim sheriff, but the Senate wields the power to determine whether the governor's rationale for suspension is legitimate.

In his executive order, the governor alleged Israel was incompetent and negligent in his duties related to the shootings.

In Monday's vote, Israel's fellow Democrats, including the four senators representing Broward County, supported his reinstatement.

One of the Broward lawmakers, Sen. Lauren Book, said her decision was not about politics. It's about holding the school resource officer, Deputy Scot Peterson , accountable for his alleged inaction, she said.

Peterson retired from his position and faces charges of culpable negligence, perjury and seven counts of felony neglect of a child. His attorney said in June the charges are politically motivated.

Book said she understands Stoneman Douglas parents and others in the community want Israel to face consequences, "but the thing that has always, always eaten me up inside is that one deputy didn't move for 48 minutes -- 48 minutes, while gunshots were going off, while you could hear them. He knew where they were. He was dropped off at the front door of that building."

"I believe that if we do not reinstate Mr. Israel that Deputy Peterson walks, because you can't have it both ways," Book said. "For me, the thing that I weigh the most is the fact that I want to hold this coward accountable."

Israel's lawyer: No one 'acted perfectly'

Book's argument echoed that of the appointed special master, attorney and former GOP lawmaker J. Dudley Goodlette, who recommended the Senate reinstate Israel.

In his 34-page report last month, Goodlette wrote that the sheriff and his office are not blameless in the Parkland response, but "the evidence offered has not demonstrated that Sheriff Israel should be removed from office based on this incident."

The blame falls on multiple people, most notably on Peterson, he said.

"While the governor has offered a plethora of criticism, he has not shown that Sheriff Israel's policies, procedures or trainings on active shooter situations are inconsistent with Florida law enforcement standards," Goodlette said.

A lawyer representing DeSantis said the governor has considered multiple factors, including the sheriff's department's improper response to reports about the Parkland shooter prior to the massacre and deputies' failure to engage the shooter once the massacre began.

Israel also knew of problems with his department's response to the January 2017 Fort Lauderdale airport shooting and did nothing to rectify them in the 13 months preceding the Stoneman Douglas attack, attorney George Levesque said.

"The law makes him responsible for the acts of his deputies," Levesque said. "It is generally held that a sheriff and his deputy are one and the same person, and the acts of the deputy may be imputed to the sheriff."

Kuehne had argued that DeSantis had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support Israel's removal. That alone should be cause for reinstatement, he said.

"Sheriff Israel has never, never taken the position that anybody, including himself, acted perfectly," the lawyer said. "He does, however, assert the position that officers were trained and knew their responsibility and had to act based on knowledge and information they had."