By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — In a final pitch to a Senate special master, former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel’s lawyer is insisting that the suspended law enforcement officer wasn’t to blame for two deadly mass shootings that led to his ouster by Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this year.
The Republican governor made the suspension of Israel one of his first actions after taking office in January, accusing the former sheriff of “neglect of duty” and “incompetence” connected to the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 students and faculty members dead.
In his executive order suspending Israel, DeSantis also blamed the former sheriff for mishandling the response to a mass shooting at Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport that resulted in five deaths.
Israel, a Democrat, appealed his suspension to the Florida Senate, which has the authority to reinstate or remove elected officials. Senate Special Master Dudley Goodlette, appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano, held a two-day hearing on the matter in June. Goodlette will make recommendations to Galvano, and the Senate Rules Committee could consider the recommendations as early as September, when lawmakers return to Tallahassee for committee meetings in advance of the legislative session that begins in January.
The full Senate will make a final decision on Israel’s fate.
In a proposed recommended order filed with the Senate Tuesday evening, Israel’s lawyer, Benedict Kuehne, argued that the Senate should reinstate Israel and that he should be repaid for lost wages since his January suspension.
“The totality of the evidence does not indicate any failure of significance on the part of Sheriff Israel in the faithful performance of his duties of sheriff of Broward County,” Kuehne wrote in the 30-page proposed order.
Israel and his lawyers have maintained 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.
But lawyers for DeSantis harshly criticized Israel for failing to prepare his deputies for mass shootings, directly putting the onus of the fatalities on the former sheriff and his policies.
Florida law makes Israel accountable for the actions of his underlings and for policies instituted by his office, the governor’s lawyers argued in a proposed recommended order submitted to the Senate on Aug. 13.
Those failures resulted in “unnecessary and preventable deaths and injuries” at the airport and the Parkland school, DeSantis’ lawyers Nicholas Primrose and John MacIver wrote in the 50-page proposed order.
But Israel’s lawyer argued that, although the sheriff “is ultimately responsible for the operation of the sheriff’s office,” it “has never been the role of a sheriff in Florida to prevent crime from occurring.”
“Mass murders are undoubtedly tragic and reprehensible, inflicting untold harm to the victims and our communities,” Kuehne wrote, adding, “these attacks must be treated with the utmost alarm and attention.”
Mass shootings have “unfortunately, have become all too commonplace in our society,” Kuehne wrote, pointing to massacres in Florida and throughout the nation.
“It is far too easy for an executive to criticize others for underperformance when the executive has neither the background nor experience to grade the work of law enforcement leaders,” Kuehne wrote. “In our system of elective governance, however, it is for the people — the voters — to test the competency of elected officials.”
Both sides’ proposed orders reiterated many of the arguments made during a heated, two-day hearing before Dudley in June.
DeSantis’ team faulted Israel for the failure of two deputies to follow up on interactions with alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz, including 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 in June.
DeSantis’ proposed order also said that Israel was to blame for the failings of Scot Peterson, the long-serving resource office at the Parkland school who was seen on videotape hovering outside a building as Nikolas Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets inside.
Peterson, who retired after Israel announced he intended to suspend the deputy, was arrested earlier this summer following a Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s investigation into the shooting.
DeSantis’ lawyers argued that Peterson’s failure to enter the building upon hearing gunshots “resulted in eight more fatalities and more injuries, a failure to act which should be attributed to Israel’s leadership, personnel, training and active shooter policy decisions.”
“Any failure of Deputy Peterson is also a failure of Israel,” the governor’s lawyers wrote in the proposed order.
But Kuehne pushed back, writing that “nothing in Deputy Peterson’s extensive BSO (Broward Sheriff’s Office) record offered any advance warning of his incapacity.”
Israel’s proposed order acknowledged that the mass shooting at the Parkland school “is an extreme tragedy,” but argued “it was not a preventable mass terror attack given the intention of the mass murderer to commit acts of terrorism on the suburban high school campus.”
“Neither Sheriff Israel nor the BSO were responsible for the mass shooting,” he added.
Primrose, however, laid the blame at Israel’s feet.
“The facts and evidence show that Scott Israel failed to provide appropriate department policies for responding to an active shooter situation, he failed to adequately and frequently train his deputies to respond to an active shooter situation, and he failed in his paramount statutory duty to be the conservator of the peace in Broward County. These are the grounds for his suspension,” Primrose wrote.
Kuehne again accused DeSantis of carrying out a campaign promise by suspending the sheriff, arguing that Israel “faithfully carried out” his statutory duties as an elected, constitutional officer.
“But instead of relying on evidence, the governor’s case proceeds with speculation, finger-pointing, and after-the-fact criticism, despite the abundant evidence that Sheriff Israel acted to protect the lives, safety and property of Broward County residents by putting in place effective processes, policies, and personnel to keep the peace. That Sheriff Israel is neither perfect nor omnipotent does not establish any proof of any constitutional negligence or incompetence,” Kuehne wrote.
Israel’s lawyer also wrote that DeSantis’ suspension of the sheriff “represents a perilous step for our system of checks and balances, resulting in elected officials becoming subservient to the vagaries of executive action and wholly unrealistic expectations.”
Kuehne urged the Senate to reinstate Israel, warning that making law enforcement officials responsible for “failing to prevent criminals and terrorists from causing mass destruction” was a standard that has not been imposed on any sheriff or official in Florida until now.
“Imposing such sweeping responsibility upon elected sheriffs for the conduct of deviant, malicious criminal perpetrators is unfounded in law, policy, or custom, and establishes a frightening a precedent,” Kuehne concluded.