By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Delivering a stunning blow to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a special master has recommended the Florida Senate reinstate suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, after finding the governor failed to prove allegations of neglect of duty and incompetence that sparked the law enforcement official’s suspension.
After the recommendation, Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called a special session next month for the Senate to consider the removal or reinstatement of Israel.
DeSantis ordered the suspension as one of his first acts after taking office in January, accusing Israel 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. DeSantis also blamed Israel for mishandling a 2017 mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in which five people were killed and two victims were injured.
Israel appealed his suspension to the Senate, which has the authority to remove or reinstate elected officials. Galvano appointed Dudley Goodlette, a former Republican lawmaker from Naples, to act as special master in the proceedings.
In a 34-page report filed Tuesday with the Senate, Goodlette tackled each of DeSantis’ allegations against the suspended sheriff, repeatedly finding the governor failed to make his case that Israel was to blame for the deaths at the airport and the Parkland school.
“At bottom, Sheriff Israel and the BSO are not blameless for the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas,” Goodlette wrote, adding he agreed with a state commission responsible for examining the 2018 school shooting “that mistakes were made and areas should be improved.”
“That said, the evidence offered has not demonstrated that Sheriff Israel should be removed from office based on this incident. 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 were inconsistent with Florida law enforcement standards,” Goodlette wrote.
Goodlette, a lawyer who is highly regarded by Galvano and other GOP lawmakers, faulted the governor for accusing Israel of failing to adequately train deputies. DeSantis did not establish “accepted law enforcement practice in this area,” Goodlette found.
“More preparation is always preferable to less. Yet it is not possible (or even feasible) to require constant training on every topic,” Goodlette wrote. “It is important to remember that every hour a deputy spends training he is not available for active duty. There is nothing in the record to suggest that a three-year training cycle was outside the norm, much less constitutionally insufficient.”
And Goodlette found DeSantis’ “complaints about the content” of Israel’s active-shooter training “also falls short,” while acknowledging that “live-action” training would be beneficial.
“But the question here is not whether Sheriff Israel utilized best practices,” Goodlette wrote, adding that an elected official “can be removed from office only upon a showing of incompetence or neglect of duty.”
“Overall, the evidence presented to me suggests it was individual failures that plagued the Stoneman Douglas response, not neglect or incompetence by Sheriff Israel,” Goodlette concluded.
In a prepared statement, Israel hailed Goodlette’s findings.
“The rule of law has prevailed,” Israel said. “I humbly ask the Florida Senate to approve my reinstatement, so I can continue to serve all Broward County as the people’s elected sheriff.”
But DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate, disagreed with Goodlette’s conclusions.
“The victims with families impacted by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deserve justice and accountability,” DeSantis said in a statement, adding that senators will “render their own independent judgment on 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,” the governor said.
Galvano on Wednesday ordered a special session of the Senate from Oct. 21 to Oct. 25, a period when lawmakers will be in Tallahassee for committee meetings in advance of the 2020 legislative session.
DeSantis blamed the deaths of the students and faculty at the Parkland school directly on Israel, because Deputy Scot Peterson — who was the Parkland school’s resource officer at the time of the Feb. 14, 2018 massacre — lingered outside school buildings while accused killer Nikolas Cruz unleashed a volley of bullets on students and faculty. Peterson’s failure to act resulted in additional fatalities, according to a report by the state-created Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. DeSantis heavily relied on the commission’s findings in his case against Israel.
Goodlette said he had “no trouble concluding” that Peterson and other deputies “neglected their duty” during the shooting “and bear varying degrees of culpability.”
“However, I cannot adopt the governor’s position that their personal failures, in and of themselves, create grounds to remove Sheriff Israel. To be sure, Sheriff Israel bears ultimate responsibility for the neglect of his deputies,” Goodlette wrote. “But it is impractical to suggest that he can face removal from office based on the conduct of a subordinate that was never authorized, sanctioned, or ratified.”
Imposing “such sweeping responsibility upon an elected official would establish an unworkable precedent,” Goodlette added.
“Almost any elected official overseeing a large organization would be subject to removal at any time because even well-trained and supervised employees can make grievous mistakes,” he wrote.
As a “conservator of the peace,” Israel is responsible for equipping deputies with the knowledge and resources needed to protect the residents of the county against criminal behavior, Goodlette noted.
“To that end, neglect or incompetence of the magnitude required for removal must be tied to an institutional failure. It is not enough to show that a deputy (or deputies) acted improperly and failed to follow protocol, which is all the governor proposes here,” Goodlette wrote.
Goodlette also found DeSantis did not prove Israel fell short of his duties in failing to protect the lives of the 17 Parkland victims, writing that the record “is devoid of evidence” that Israel or anyone at his office was aware of “a specific threat immediately before the Stoneman Douglas shooting.”
And Goodlette addressed Israel’s policy, harshly criticized by DeSantis and his lawyers, that said deputies “may” — and not “shall” — engage with an active shooter, noting that the governor claimed the language “afforded too much discretion and prioritized police protection over helping victims.”
Goodlette acknowledged that the active shooter policy “was not ideal,” adding that “stronger language could have helped reaffirm the overarching priority in such situations, which is stopping the threat.”
But, he added, “I cannot agree, however, that the BSO active shooter policy was so deficient that it evidences neglect of duty or incompetence” on the part of Israel.
“The reason for this is simple — many Florida law enforcement agencies use similar policies that afford a single deputy discretion to engage an armed assailant,” the special master wrote.