Elected Broward sheriff removed; Gov. DeSantis expands his power

State Sen. David Simmons argues to remove elected Broward sheriff. Florida Channel screenshot.

Over Democratic protests, the Republican-led Florida Senate voted 25-15 Wednesday to remove the elected sheriff of Broward County, following the lead of Gov. Ron DeSantis after months of debate over whether the governor overstepped his authority.

Some senators called the move a dangerous precedent, while others said the removal represents justice for students and staff gunned down Feb. 14, 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

According to DeSantis, Sheriff Scott Israel was incompetent as a leader because of his deputies’ poor handling of the Parkland shooting in progress.

Israel’s attorney, Ben Kuehne, said he and the sheriff will decide soon whether to appeal, either to a federal court or perhaps the Florida Supreme Court. Kuehne said the Senate proceedings demonstrated “a disgraceful and appalling lack of rule of law.”

Israel was elected twice, in 2012 and 2016, and has already filed papers to run again in 2020. DeSantis, who promised while running for governor that he would remove Israel from office, said he would not interfere with Israel’s 2020 campaign.

GOP senators who voted to remove Israel from office said the sheriff is responsible for widely condemned actions and inactions by eight of his deputies during the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Seventeen teens and adults were killed and scores wounded.

“Today is about accountability,” said Sen. Bob Bradley, a Republican who represents a swath of northeastern counties.

Critics said it was about governmental overreach and scapegoating.

“It is prosecutorial overreach. It’s going way too far,” said Sen. Tom Lee said, a Republican who voted against the sheriff’s removal. Lee represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk.

Lee and others emphasized that the Senate-appointed special master, also a Republican, found that DeSantis failed to prove his case against the sheriff and should reinstate him.

Senate President Pro Tempore David Simmons, Republican representing Seminole and Volusia counties, said he believes Israel’s deputies were negligent in their duties because Israel is a poor leader and should not continue to serve in office.

“He blamed it on his deputies, but he himself says there was no fault of his. If you are talking about something that constitutes a systemic failure, you’re talking about eight deputies under these circumstances failing to take the action that was essential,” Simmons said. “(The deputies’) action reflects what was going on in the organization.”

Sen. Lauren Book, a Broward County Democrat deeply involved in investigating the Parkland high school shootings, said fired Deputy Scot Peterson, not Israel, is the one culpable for his widely condemned choice to keep a safe distance and not engage shooter Nikolas Cruz. Peterson, who faces criminal charges for his actions, will benefit in court from the Senate blaming Israel, Book said.

“Scot Peterson was acting on behalf of no one!” Book said. “He was supposed to go in … but he did nothing.

“The coward from Broward will be off the hook. We’re writing his defenses for him.”

Sen. Gary Farmer, Broward County Democrat , said he and every senator grieve for the shooting victims and their loved ones and want them to be avenged. But he voted against removing Israel from office. saying evidence in the case falls short of the rule of law and that the Senate must protect people’s right to elect their constitutional officers.

“I want to do almost anything that the Parkland parents want!” Farmer said. “I don’t know how they go on.”

But while senators listened to the pleas of the survivors and the victims’ loved ones, he said, they should have done more.

“We would have also listened to their pleas for an assault weapons ban,” Farmer said. Gov. DeSantis, who was endorsed by the NRA, said on the campaign trail that he would have vetoed gun-control measures adopted by the Legislature a month after the Parkland shootings.

Farmer and others cited Special Master Dudley Goodlette’s finding that Israel, while “not blameless”, was not negligent and did in fact provide his officers with active-duty training that deputies should have been employed in the Parkland shooting.

“You can’t say he (Peterson) didn’t get trained. He was just a coward!” Farmer said, adding that Peterson and others were fired or demoted by the sheriff for the way they conducted themselves.

Farmer and Lee questioned whether sheriffs and other elected officers will now be at undue risk of being removed from office if they take controversial stands – such as overseeing a sanctuary city.

Lee said Wednesday’s Senate vote marks a sea change for Florida sheriffs, who he believes view this action as “anti-law enforcement.”

Several senators said on the Senate floor that they voted “their conscience” and sided with the governor despite findings that DeSantis failed to make a strong enough legal case to justify removing the sheriff. Senate President Bill Galvano said the Senate was not required to conduct these proceedings as a judicial proceeding.

Laura Cassels
Veteran journalist Laura Cassels is a reporter, writer and editor returning to Florida’s Capitol Press Corps in Tallahassee, where she was bureau chief for Florida Freedom Newspapers after serving as city editor at the Panama City News Herald. She is a classical pianist, has a home in Tallahassee and has a farm in South Georgia, where her extended family grows blueberries, grapes and pecans. She is a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.