Removed from office: FL sheriffs mum after Israel case; Former AG Butterworth calls it a sad situation

Florida sheriffs and other constitutional officers gathered at the Florida Historic Capitol in September 2018. Photo from Florida Sheriffs Association Facebook page.

The dramatic removal of an elected sheriff by the governor of Florida begs the question of what message this conveys to sheriffs in the age of mass shootings.

But sheriffs across Florida have largely been mum, raising concerns about whether an atmosphere of fear may exist about other sheriffs being removed in the future.

Bob Butterworth, once Florida’s top law-enforcement officer, says voters will have to do the talking.

For now, he means voters in Broward County.

Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, flanked by then Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, speaking to the media about the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. Israel was later suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

They elected Scott Israel, a Democrat, as sheriff twice, in 2012 and 2016, but Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, suspended Israel in January. As a candidate, DeSantis had promised to do so in the wake of the Feb. 14, 2018, shootings that left 17 teens and adults dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the Broward County community of Parkland.

DeSantis blamed Israel early on for his deputies’ botched response to the shootings. Florida senators on Oct. 23 voted 25-15 to uphold the governor’s action against the sheriff. The action came despite the Senate’s special master concluding there was insufficient evidence for removal, and much blame to go around in the Parkland massacre.

Israel plans to run again in 2020.

“I think voters in Broward County will analyze this very, very carefully,” Butterworth said. “Can you blame this whole thing on Sheriff Israel? We’ll see what the voters say.”

The Florida Phoenix asked 10 Florida sheriff’s offices to comment on repercussions of an elected sheriff being removed from office by a governor due to misdeeds by employees found to have been adequately trained.

The Phoenix also asked the Florida Sheriffs Association. And the National Sheriffs Association. None responded.

Only one sheriff’s spokesman made a comment, but nothing was said.

“We’re not going to wade into that,” said Dave Teems, spokesman for Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil.

These sheriff’s offices also did not wade in:

  • Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell
  • Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford
  • Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey
  • Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young
  • Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison
  • Orange County Sheriff John Mina
  • Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood
  • Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson
  • Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the Florida Sheriffs Association president and chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, which investigated the high-school shootings in Parkland.

The silence seems eerie, because, as Gualtieri has publicly said many times about mass shootings, “It’s going to happen again.” Will that mean other sheriffs could be removed because of failings by their deputies?

In December 2018, Gualtieri told NBC-6 reporter Tony Pipitone he would not remove Israel from office if it were up to him because the sheriff had provided sufficient training that the deputies failed to execute.

Portrait of Robert Butterworth, Florida Attorney General, 1998. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Butterworth, once a sheriff himself, is a former Florida attorney general and former secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. He gave high marks to the Senate special master’s findings about Sheriff Israel and to the report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, both of which found numerous organizations at fault in the massacre at the high school.

“There’s more than one player here,” Butterworth said. “The FBI was the first one to say we made a mistake.”

He said the FBI, other law enforcement, the Broward County School Board, the Department of Children and Families, Palm Beach County (where the gunman lived), and mental-health organizations all played parts.

“There may be no way that a sheriff or police chief alone can do it,” Butterworth said. “None of them want anything bad to happen. You train your personnel, and you expect them to do their best. Will mistakes be made? Unfortunately, yes, mistakes will be made. And you try to correct them.

“This is a very sad situation. It could happen anywhere.”

A few Florida senators who voted not to remove the Broward sheriff from office said elected sheriffs who spoke to them are concerned they too could be removed from office if their deputies make substantial errors despite their training – or even if they do not enforce proposed bans on so-called sanctuary cities.

In Orange County, Sheriff Mina’s office was asked to comment on Israel’s suspension after Parkland, in light of the Pulse nightclub shootings in June 2016.

Mina, elected as sheriff last November, was Orlando’s chief of police when a gunman murdered 49 people and wounded 68 more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It was at the time the worst lone-gunman mass shooting in the United States, an infamous record trumped Oct. 1, 2017, by the mass shooting in Las Vegas that killed 58 concert-goers and wounded 422.

Mina’s public information office acknowledged the Phoenix requests for comments, but none were provided.

Six sheriffs have been removed from office by executive order in Florida in the past five decades, according to Senate records. That means the governor and the Senate at the time agreed on the removal. They are:

  • Scott Israel, Broward County, 2019 (after being elected in 2012 and again in 2016)
  • Lawrence O. Davis, St. Johns County, 1970
  • Don R. Watson, Jefferson County, 1973
  • E. Bill Davis, Escambia County, 1974
  • Daniel H. Bennett, Flagler County, 1983
  • Richard Al Harrison, Gulf County, 1997.

Two other sheriffs were suspended by governors but the Senate reinstated them. They are:

  • Sim L. Lowman, Hernando County, 1970
  • Jack Taylor Jr., Franklin County, 1978.