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Florida Senate Rules Committee recommends removal of suspended Sheriff Scott Israel

Full Senate to cast deciding vote on fate of embattled Broward County sheriff

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Senate Rules Committee voted Monday in favor of removing suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel from office, going against a special master's recommendation that he be reinstated.

Special Master Dudley Goodlette wrote in his recommendation last month that Gov. Ron DeSantis failed to demonstrate why Israel should be removed from office.

But some parents of the Parkland school shooting victims voiced their objections to Israel getting his job back.

After being presented with Goodlette's report, the committee heard from attorneys for DeSantis and Israel before voting 9-7 in favor of upholding the suspension.

The full Senate will have the final vote Wednesday.

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 on Valentine's Day 2018.

"Had more evidence been offered, you know, my recommendation may have been to remove the suspended sheriff, but based upon the evidence that was presented, I concluded my recommendation was for reinstatement," Goodlette told committee members during Monday's hearing.

Ben Kuehne, an attorney for Israel, said the governor failed to produce sufficient evidence to warrant a suspension.

"The failure of the governor to prove the charges requires reinstatement," Kuehne said.

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."

DeSantis appointed acting Sheriff Gregory Tony to fill the office during Israel's suspension.


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