Dimwit Florida Sheriff Was 'Once a Proud Member of Team Obama'

Florida Sheriff Scott Israel in a black uniform

When some major police incident occurs, it is most often my practice to withhold comment until I can be sure that most of the facts surrounding it have been revealed. A horrific event like a school shooting like that which occurred in Parkland, Fla., arouses the impulse to weigh in with opinions based on incomplete or even false information. It is best to resist this impulse.

Others, of course, with endless hours of air time to fill, and with agendas to push along, are unable to resist it. There may be more egregious examples of this, but I don’t see how anyone can compete with the CNN’s recent “town hall,” at which Sen. Marco Rubio and Dana Loesch were mocked and browbeaten by what amounted to little more than an angry mob.

Which is not to say the people in attendance didn’t have reason to be angry. The crowd was made up of students, parents, and teachers from Stoneman Douglas High School, where days earlier 31 students and staff members had been shot, 17 of them fatally. From a high school student’s limited perspective and experience, he knows only that something horrific has occurred in his world, something that by all rights should not have. With his nerves still raw and exposed, he sees before him on the stage a conservative senator and a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, each of whom he perceives, in that limited perspective and experience, to have contributed to the trauma he has experienced.

Fine. One expects as much from young people, but with the understanding that their outrage, however well founded, will have limited influence in the formulation of public policy. What I found most interesting in the CNN broadcast, aside from the graciousness shown by Sen. Rubio and Ms. Loesch, was how Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel came to be a crowd favorite, echoing as he did their loudly expressed passion for stricter gun control, all the while eliding the apparent failures of his own department. Interrupting Ms. Loesch at one point, Sheriff Israel said to her, “You just told this group of people that you are standing up for them. You’re not standing up for them until you say, ‘I want less weapons.’” This statement, though meaningless, was of course intended to be an applause line, and indeed it was greeted with a standing ovation.

But Sheriff Israel was far from finished wooing the crowd. After extolling his own police experience, he said, “The men and women I’ve worked with for almost forty years, we know how to keep America safe. . . . When we encounter someone who’s going through a mental illness, we shouldn’t have to wait until they’re a danger to themselves or someone else. We should be able to take them to an institution that’s going to examine them and take weapons away from them right then and there.”

This, too, was applauded by a crowd who failed to see the sinister implications in the proposal. As the law exists today, police officers are empowered to take someone into custody for evaluation of a mental disorder if the person is a danger to himself or others, or is gravely disabled. (Florida’s Baker Act is here; California’s analogous law is here.) If Sheriff Israel’s proposal were enacted, what criteria would be used to decide if someone who is not a danger to himself or others should be snatched from his home and have his weapons taken from him?

Remember that Sheriff Israel is much more a politician than he is a police officer. He was first elected in 2012, labeling himself in a campaign video as a “proud member of Team Obama,” this despite having been a Republican until running for sheriff in left-leaning Broward County. He was re-elected in 2016, but in the wake of the Parkland horrors he is faced with a situation that jeopardizes his future prospects. To a politician, such a situation demands pandering to the mob and shifting blame onto others. At CNN’s town hall, the sheriff did both.

If, as Sheriff Israel claimed, the men and women he works with “know how to keep America safe,” how is that those in his direct charge failed so disastrously to do so on Feb. 14? The town hall was held eight days after the shooting, sufficient time, one would think, for the sheriff to have evaluated the response of his deputies to what happened at the school. Yet he made no mention of what we now know, which is that the deputy assigned to the school remained outside the building as the shooting continued inside, and that three other deputies may have done so as well.

Deputy Scott Peterson, the school resource officer since 2010, retired from the Sheriff’s Department after being suspended for his inaction. Speaking to reporters after making this announcement, Sheriff Israel said Peterson should have entered the building and “killed the killer.”

And don’t we all wish he had done so. But there are questions to be asked about Deputy Peterson’s conduct that day, the most important of which is this: What is the policy of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office regarding a lone officer responding to the scene of an active shooter?

Prior to my retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department, I was a member of a squad that was specially trained and equipped to respond to active shooters. Working alongside members of the Los Angeles Fire Department, we practiced in abandoned hospitals and office buildings, even at the Camp Pendleton Marine base, using role players to act as suspects and victims so as to make the scenarios as realistic as possible. As things stood when I last went through this training, the policy was for officers not to enter a building alone, but to assemble and engage a shooter in groups of four or five, this based on the assumption that a lone officer would merely become another casualty among those already wounded. This policy was adopted by police departments all over the country, perhaps even by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

With this in mind, however, every police officer knows that from time to time situations arise that demand a deviation from policy, and that moment at the high school may have been one. But in publicly blaming Deputy Peterson for failing to act, Sheriff Israel was merely covering his own posterior, for it was also revealed that his deputies had been called to Cruz’s home many times in the seven years preceding the shooting. It remains to be seen if Cruz could have been or should have been arrested on any of those occasions, but it certainly behooves Sheriff Israel and his political fortunes if blame can be thrust onto a single deputy and not shared by many in the department he heads.

Sheriff Israel pandered to the crowd from start to finish, but in one attempt to win their hearts he took things to a nauseating level. After being challenged by Ms. Loesch on the number of time his deputies had encountered the accused shooter, Israel changed the subject, embarking on a rant about gun control and how “automatic rifles should be outlawed forever.” And, as the crowd cheered, he reached the sickening crescendo. Echoing an earlier comment from Emma Gonzalez, the Stoneman Douglas senior who has become the face of the school’s activist movement, Israel said, “Anybody who says different, I don’t know about other people, but Emma and I, we call B.S. on that.” The crowd was again on their feet and roaring their approval, and Sheriff Israel could scarcely conceal his glee at having won them over.

The sheriff’s glee would be short-lived. On Sunday morning, Sheriff Israel again appeared on CNN, this time in a one-on-one interview with Jake Tapper (transcript is here). Pressed by Tapper on what Peterson and other deputies did or did not do at the school, Israel equivocated and said the matter was still under investigation. He was clearly uncomfortable at some of the questions he was asked, and if my own 35 years as a cop grants me allowance to make such a judgment, he was clearly deceptive in some of his answers, such as when Tapper asked him when he first learned about Peterson’s conduct. “I’m not on a timeline for TV or any news show,” Israel said.

Later, after Israel had obfuscated on a number of questions relating to his own and his deputies’ actions, Tapper asked him, “Are you really not taking any responsibility for the multiple red flags that were brought to the attention of the Broward Sheriff's Office about this shooter before the incident, whether it was people near him, close to him calling the police?”

“Jake,” Israel said weakly, “I can only -- Jake, I can only take responsibility for what I knew about. I exercised my due diligence. I have given amazing leadership to this agency.”

It was a lame performance. While Sheriff Israel was hailed as a hero at CNN’s town hall, to the wider world he has been revealed as a dimwit, one who is ill equipped to weather the maelstrom he has entered. He is sadly typical of the modern police executive: neither especially bright nor innovative, but willing to adapt his principles or abandon them altogether so as to deflect blame onto to others and remain in the good graces of his political patrons. In Sheriff Israel’s case, his political patrons will soon realize he has become an embarrassment, and in due course he will be cast adrift. May it happen quickly.