DeSantis suspends Broward sheriff amid Parkland fallout; Israel says decision was ‘about politics’

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (WSVN) - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced the suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel over the handling of the Parkland school massacre, one day after Israel reportedly told his staff he will likely be removed from office.

DeSantis walked up to a podium outside the Broward Sheriff’s Office headquarters near Fort Lauderdale, at around 4:45 p.m., Friday.

The new governor did not waste any time.

“I have issued an executive order suspending Scott Israel as the sheriff of Broward County,” he said as cheers erupted from attendees.

Related: Read Florida Gov. DeSantis’ executive order suspending Sheriff Israel

Moments later, family members of those who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took center stage.

“My little boy Alex is no longer here, because he was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas on Valentine’s Day 2018,” said Max Schachter. “The MSD Commission found fault with nine different deputies’ actions. Their actions, along with Scott Israel’s failed and inadequate policies, procedures and training has made Broward County less safe.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting, also spoke at the news conference.

“My daughter died on the third floor of MSD [Building 12], running down the hallway from an active shooter. One more second, and she [would have made] it into the stairwell,” he said. “She needed one more second. If anybody wants to know what failure means, and lack of response, my daughter would have lived if somebody could have given her just one more second.”

Speaking after several testimonies from Parkland loved ones, DeSantis echoed their criticisms of Israel.

“The massacre might never have happened had Broward had better leadership in the Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

“I never did anything political before my daughter was murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” said Andrew Pollack, the father of MSD victim Meadow Pollack. “Our community and our kids will be much safer now that Sheriff Israel is out of office.”

“We’re here because of failures from the past., but today is a new day,” said Ryan Petty, the father of MSD victim Alaina Petty. “Today is a new chapter. I’m excited. We have a — I promised I wasn’t going to say it, but I’m going to do it. There’s a new sheriff in town.”

DeSantis has tapped former Coral Springs Police Sgt. Gregory Tony as Israel’s replacement. He is the county’s first black sheriff, and he was reportedly recommended by the father of a Parkland victim.

Tony, 40, has served five years on the SWAT team. He founded a private security company that specialized in active shooting training programs, including for civilians.

Tony was sworn in as Broward County sheriff Friday afternoon.

“I have served with many of these men and women through my law enforcement career, and they’re not self-serving,” he said. “They have the community’s interest at their heart, as do I.”

DeSantis had been expected to hold a news conference at 3 p.m. on Friday, but his plane had mechanical problems, so they had to divert to St. Petersburg, delaying his arrival to South Florida.

Friday’s announcement comes after days of speculation that Israel will soon be out of a job after seven years as Broward’s sheriff.

The Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel had recently reported that Israel told his staff he expected to be removed.

Following the Parkland shooting, which claimed 17 lives, then-candidate DeSantis told supporters he’d suspend Israel but retreated in later appearances.

Minutes after DeSantis’ conference concluded, Israel held his own conference outside Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.

Flanked by his supporters and his wife Susan, Israel said he will be fighting his suspension.

“Let me be clear: I wholeheartedly reject the statements in the governor’s executive order as lacking both legal merit and a valid factual basis,” he said. “There was no wrongdoing on my part. I served the county honorably. I will continue to do that. False narratives may continue, but not in the court of law.”

However, during Israel’s time at the helm, Broward County saw a yearly drop in violent crime, burglary and robbery.

The embattled former leader said the motive behind his suspension was political.

“Sadly, this suspension, is not about what occurred on February 14th. The governor promised as a candidate, well before he had any facts of the investigation, well before the commission even began their work, that he would remove me from office,” he said. “Today, he merely fulfilled a campaign promise. This was about politics, not about Parkland.”

Israel also discussed plans to get his title back after the Florida Senate reconvenes March 5.

“I intend to vigorously fight this unjustified suspension, both in court and before the Florida Senate,” he said.

Under Florida law, the governor can suspend elected officials for criminal activity, misfeasance, incompetence or neglect of duty.

But Israel’s attorney, Stuart Kaplan, indicated there’s no legal basis for the suspension.

“The facts do not warrant that Sheriff Israel in any way was incompetent in connection with this horrendous shooting,” he said.

Israel had faced criticism over BSO’s response to the Parkland shooting, the shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, as well as the response to an inmate who escaped from a Broward County courthouse in 2016, leading to an almost weeklong manhunt.

Israel acknowledged the Parkland shooting victims in his rebuttal to the governor.

“Once again, I want to extend my deepest sympathies, my heartfelt sympathies to the families who lost loved ones on that dreadful day in Parkland,” he said.

But he also pointed out no one was removed from office in the wake of other mass shootings in Florida.

“No one was suspended after the Pulse shooting. No one was suspended in 2017 after the mass shooting at an Orlando factory,” said Israel. “The difference? I spoke out about gun violence.”

Five BSO command staff members resigned from the force just prior to DeSantis’ announcement: Undersheriff Stephen Kinsey, Col. Jack Dale, Col. James Polan, Maj. Kevin Chults and Maj. Chadwick Wagner.

Also expected to be removed from office is the president of the BSO’s deputy’s union, Jeff Bell.

“I’m proud to say that despite a tragedy, 17 lives were not lost for nothing,” said Bell. “At least some good is happening out of this, and hopefully, we can continue with the good, build a better policy and better training to effectively stop a tragedy like this from ever happening again.”

Israel concluded his news conference by revealing he plans to file a lawsuit and also intends to once again run for Broward County sheriff in 2020.

“For now, it’s on to court,” he said.

Parkland families said they have high hopes for Tony. Debbie Hixon, the widow of MSD victim Chris Hixon, said she hopes that, under the new sheriff’s leadership, BSO deputies will run in and try to protect victims during a school shooting.

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