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Suspension Of Sheriff After High School Shootings Confirmed By Florida State Senate

Photo caption:

Photo by Steve Cannon AP

Former Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, seen on Monday. The state Senate voted Wednesday to confirm his ouster by Gov. Ron DeSantis over the performance of his department in the 2018 high school shootings in Parkland.

Florida's Senate voted Wednesday to confirm the removal of Scott Israel from his position as sheriff of Broward County. In January, days after being sworn in, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Israel, charging him with incompetence and dereliction of duty for actions before and after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland last year.

The governor said Israel was to blame for missed signals and systemic failures at the Broward Sheriff's Office that could have prevented or mitigated the shooting in which 17 people died and 17 more were injured. In particular, the governor cited the inaction of sheriff's deputy Scot Peterson, the school resource office on duty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who failed to respond to the gunshots and never entered the school that day.

Under Florida's constitution, the governor can suspend elected officials, including sheriffs, but those suspensions must be confirmed by the state Senate. Florida's Senate President Bill Galvano appointed a special master who conducted two days of hearings over the summer. In the end, the special master concluded that the governor and his lawyers had not made their case that Israel was responsible for failures of his deputies the day of the shootings. In a nonbinding recommendation, the special master said Israel, a Democrat, should be reinstated as Broward sheriff.

That surprised many and angered families of victims of the shootings. The Parkland families had pushed DeSantis for Israel's removal and leading up to this week's vote, they lobbied senators to confirm his removal. At a committee hearing this week, Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime was killed, told senators, "Everyone wishes maybe the governor's office had done more. But we all know the facts. We all know the failure. I'm living proof of it."

After four hours of debate on Wednesday, nearly every Republican and a few Democrats voted to uphold Israel's removal. Miami-Dade Democrat Annette Taddeo said she's been critical in the past when other lawmakers ignored the pleas of the Parkland parents for stronger gun control laws. But Taddeo said, as she was packing to go to Tallahassee, her cell phone rang and she asked her daughter who was calling. Her daughter looked at the caller ID and said, "It's a Parkland parent, Max Schachter." Taddeo told her daughter, "Don't pick it up. I don't have time for that call right now." Her daughter said, "Mommy, if I would have died in Parkland, you would want them to take that call." Taddeo voted to remove Israel from office.

Among those voting for Israel's reinstatement was Tom Lee, a Republican from the Tampa area. He cited concerns about due process and the precedent it set. In removing an elected official for the actions of a subordinate, Lee said, "We are establishing new law today." Lee said he'd spoken to a half-dozen sheriffs about the case and was told "there's grave concern ... that what we are doing here today is anti-law enforcement."

In a statement, Israel said he was disappointed in the outcome, but not surprised. "Politics won the day," he said. Israel has already announced his intention to run again for Broward sheriff in next year's election.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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