Former colleagues: Sheriff Scott Israel focused on politics over law enforcement

The New Yorker published a story today titled, “The Troubled Tenure of Scott Israel, Sheriff of Broward County.” The gist of the piece is that Sheriff Israel is someone who seems more interested in PR and maintaining his position than in the details of law enforcement work.

The story suggests it’s that focus on achieving power that led him to switch parties. He was once a Republican and the chief of police in a small town located in a neighboring county. But Broward County is one of the largest Sheriff’s offices in the country. To win an election there, he needed to be a Democrat. According to the critics quoted in the story, Sheriff Israel has never been focused on the nitty-gritty of police work:

During the last two weeks, in conversations with multiple former colleagues and associates of Sheriff Israel, I was told again and again that, since taking office, Israel has failed to engage sufficiently in the essential if unglamorous work of overseeing law enforcement in a large and complex U.S. county, and that he was overly focussed on the politics of prolonging his tenure…Jeff Bell, president of the Broward County Sheriff’s Deputies Association and a deputy, who has been with the B.S.O. for twenty-two years, said, “We feel like we’ve been deserted. A ship at sea, just drifting. No sense of direction whatsoever.” A former senior employee of the B.S.O., who asked not to be named, told me, of Israel, “If he survives this, morale will never be the same. And it’s already as bad as it’s ever been.”…

The former senior B.S.O. employee, who worked at the sheriff’s office for decades, had other complaints about Israel. “We never talked about crime,” he said. He added, “We had monthly crime meetings with the district folks, but Israel never sat in and talked to us about it—not a burglary, not a robbery—never.” Instead, he said, Israel preferred to discuss community events. “He wanted to make sure we had all the parades and block parties covered. Even during hurricane season, the guy never sat us down and said, ‘O.K., where are we with the hurricane plan?’ ” Israel, he said, “was more interested in branding, putting his picture on the side of trucks. He’d say, ‘I’m the most visible sheriff ever.’ I’d be visible, too, if I never came in the office. The guy didn’t spend twenty hours a week there.” A deputy who currently works at the B.S.O. also could not recall “ever hearing Israel talk in detail about crime.”

The story goes on to suggest this lack of interest in the details caught up with the Sheriff in the form of Nikolas Cruz. The police had been called to Cruz’s home over his behavior dozens of time (maybe up to 45 times). He had also been moved out of several school for disruptive and violent behavior. And yet, no arrest was ever made and he was never expelled from the school system. There’s a compelling case that something called the “Promise program” which was intended to interrupt the so-called “school to prison pipeline” may have played a role in this. Schools were encouraged not to involve law enforcement in misbehavior, even serial misbehavior as a way to combat mass incarceration.

But even if Cruz’s behavior prior to the shooting was given a pass, there’s still the question of how Scott Israel’s deputies acted during the shooting. There had been a previous mass shooting about a year earlier where Broward County officers were criticized for their response. But again, it appears Scott Israel’s office didn’t take the opportunity to learn from that failure.

The former senior employee pointed to another major incident, from January of 2017, when a man with a gun killed five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. It remains one of the deadliest airport shootings in U.S. history. The perpetrator was arrested in under two minutes, but, as the Sun-Sentinel reported, “a flurry of false reports of gunshots ninety minutes later—many of them coming from law enforcement officers, within earshot of passengers—sparked an uncontrolled, mass evacuation from all four airport terminals.” A report compiled by an independent consulting company later concluded that “the Broward Sheriff’s Office didn’t take adequate control of the response.” Law enforcement, the report said, “lacked clear instructions, objectives and roles.” Israel disputed the report before reading it. “Lessons should have been learned,” the former senior employee told me. “But they weren’t. They just aren’t under Israel.”

[Former Broward County Sheriff Al] Lamberti said that it was essential that sheriffs’ offices study what has gone wrong in the past. After other mass shootings, he said, “we always tried to send people out there, get people on the phone. To learn from these things.” Procedures changed after the Columbine shooting, he noted, because it was all over so quickly. Now, he said, “you go in and engage the shooter immediately, with ideally four officers. But you go in with one, if necessary. You don’t wait.”

Lamberti goes on to say, “This school shooting was a failure of protocol and procedures.” Given the surveillance video we saw yesterday and the audio revealed last week, it’s hard to argue with that.