FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A special master appointed by the president of the Florida Senate has recommended that suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel be reinstated.
Special Master Dudley Goodlette, while not completely exonerating Israel, wrote in his recommendation Tuesday that Gov. Ron DeSantis failed to demonstrate why Israel should be removed from office.
"I'm very humbled, very grateful to God for what happened today," Israel said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference.
DeSantis, who suspended Israel shortly after taking office in January, cited "neglect of duty and incompetence" in his executive order. It references the tragedies at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January 2017 and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in February 2018.
"In broad strokes, the governor claims that Sheriff Israel's failed leadership resulted in multiple deaths from two mass shooting incidents in Broward County," Goodlette wrote.
Fort Lauderdale airport shooting
In his 34-page report, Goodlette said DeSantis "has not offered any evidence for how Sheriff Israel could have prevented" the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting.
DeSantis claimed Israel failed to staff the airport at appropriate levels.
"The governor's argument is problematic for several reasons," Goodlette contended. "For starters, it is built on the faulty premise that an overall reduction in personnel equates to understaffing. But one does not necessarily follow the other."
In 2008, the Broward Sheriff's Office staffed 150 people at the airport, but that number dropped to 116 a decade later.
But Goodlette suggested it could be that the airport was overstaffed in 2008.
"Without some measuring stick to use as comparison, which the governor has not supplied, it is impossible to discern whether the overall staffing at the Fort Lauderdale airport was objectively deficient in 2017," Goodlette wrote.
Goodlette went on to say that "the cited staffing reductions were almost entirely civilian employees." He said there were "nearly the same number" of sworn deputies at the airport in 2017 as there were a decade earlier -- 92 in 2017 compared to 98 in 2008.
The challenge with the governor's argument, Goodlette wrote, is that the staffing levels at the airport is overseen by the Broward County Aviation Department.
While Goodlette admits that he doesn't believe the BSO "was perfectly prepared for an active shooter" at the airport -- pointing out "lapses in readiness that became evident after the fact" -- he said "it is impossible to plan for all scenarios that may arise during an emergency of this magnitude."
"The burden placed on the BSO was extraordinary," Goodlette wrote. "Securing the airport grounds, evacuating tens of thousands of airport patrons safely, providing medical treatment to the injured and investigating the incident all posed a serious challenge to responding law enforcement and medical personnel. While not perfect, I cannot conclude BSO's response to the shooting was indicative of incompetence or dereliction of duty to Sheriff Israel."
DeSantis claimed Israel staffed the airport with employees who "were complacent and not up to the task."
"Upon closer examination, this argument does not withstand scrutiny," Goodlette countered.
Goodlette said he "cannot agree" with Israel's assertion that his office's response to the airport shooting "was a model" for emergency preparedness.
"My finding here is simply that the governor did not meet his burden of proving that Sheriff Israel neglected his duties or was incompetent," Goodlette wrote.
Parkland school shooting
DeSantis argued that Israel was incompetent by not requiring his deputies to engage Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz, most notably disgraced former school resource Deputy Scot Peterson.
Goodlette noted in his report that several deputies were in a position to intervene at some point during the shooting.
"I have no trouble concluding these deputies neglected their duty during the Stoneman Douglas shooting and bear varying degrees of culpability," Goodlette wrote. "However, I cannot adopt the governor's position that their personal failures, in and of themselves, create grounds to remove Sheriff Israel."
Goodlette agreed that Israel "bears ultimate responsibility for the neglect of his deputies."
"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," Goodlette said.
DeSantis also claimed Israel failed in his constitutional duty because he didn't have a specific policy to handle school shooting threats. Goodlette said the suggestion that such threats be sent directly to the sheriff "ignores the chain of command system that is the backbone of law enforcement structure."
"Mandating that he personally review and vet certain reports would undoubtedly disrupt his other equally important responsibilities," Goodlette wrote. "Furthermore, the governor's suggested policy draws an arbitrary line at school shootings. What about bomb threats? They are equally rare and have catastrophic potential."
Goodlette said the BSO's active shooter policy was not ideal, but he disagreed that it "was so deficient that it evidences neglect of duty or incompetence on the part of Sheriff Israel."
As well, Goodlette said, the governor "presented no evidence to establish that Sheriff Israel staffed" the school resource program with deputies "who were unfit for the task."
Goodlette said the only deputy discussed with any detail is Peterson.
"His failures, although undoubtedly significant, are alone not enough to incriminate the entire" school resource program, Goodlette wrote.
Goodlette said Israel and the BSO "are not blameless for the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas." But, he added, DeSantis "has not shown that Sheriff Israel's policies, procedures or trainings on active shooter situations were inconsistent with Florida law enforcement standards."
This isn't the end of the road for Israel yet.
Goodlette will present his report to the Senate Committee on Rules next month. That will include public testimony, questions by senators and comments from attorneys for both sides.
DeSantis released a statement saying he disagreed with Goodlette's analysis.
"The victims with families impacted by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School deserve justice and accountability," DeSantis said in a statement. "I disagree with the analysis contained in the non-binding recommendation. The senators will render their own independent judgement 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."
Israel said he's confident he will be reinstated and will contact DeSantis in a show of unity.
"I was elected to protect the public, and I just want to get back to do what I was elected to do," Israel said.
Acting Sheriff Gregory Tony, who was appointed by the governor to replace Israel, said in a statement that the special master's recommendation "has no bearing on our operations at the Broward Sheriff's Office, nor does it affect the high level of service that we provide to the residents and visitors of Broward County."
"As sheriff, I will continue to focus on renewing our community's trust in BSO by correcting the long-ignored issues of the past and revamping the agency in terms of training and inclusion," Tony said.