Suspended Florida Sheriff Sues Governor to Get Job Back

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (CN) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been hit with a lawsuit from a suspended sheriff who claims the governor’s decision to oust him was nothing more than a “political power play” designed to scapegoat him for last year’s Parkland high school massacre.

A man places a sign at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2019, on the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting that killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald via AP)

The lawsuit claims DeSantis, a Republican, exceeded his constitutional authority when he suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat, based on allegations that the sheriff’s department squandered multiple opportunities to prevent the school shooting. 

The Valentine’s Day 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, perpetrated by a former student, left 17 dead and sparked a wave of nationwide student protests focused on school safety and gun control. 

In a complaint filed Thursday in Broward County Circuit Court, Israel claims DeSantis faults him “without any founded factual basis, for the deaths of innocent mass shooting victims at the hands of criminals.”

“The governor engineered a political power play that interferes with the right of the public to determine their elected officials,” the lawsuit alleges. 

Israel’s attorney Benedict Kuehne in Miami asked that the sheriff be promptly reinstated. 

DeSantis’ Jan. 11 executive order to suspend Israel cited the sheriff’s department’s alleged failure to take legal action against the Parkland shooter in the two years leading up to the massacre, a period during which the department was twice advised that the teenager had plans to commit a mass shooting. 

The sheriff’s office admittedly received two warnings from the public about the perpetrator’s plans, once in 2016 and again in November 2017. 

In the latter instance, the sheriff’s office received a call advising that the teenager was amassing an arsenal and openly expressed a desire to be a school shooter. The responding deputy did not write a report and referred the matter to another jurisdiction, where the shooter had recently moved following the death of his mother. 

It was part of a string of missed opportunities to prevent the carnage. Indeed, the FBI admitted it failed to pursue a January 2018 tip to its hotline, which warned of the teenager’s “gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior, and disturbing social media posts,” as the FBI described it. 

DeSantis’ order to suspend Sheriff Israel also blames him for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office’s allegedly flat-footed response to the attack. 

The onsite school deputy was in national headlines for months over his decision to take a defensive position outside rather enter the building where the shooting was taking place. 

As cited in the governor’s suspension order, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission’s review of the shooting noted there were several other deputies who were in close proximity to the shooting but “did not immediately move towards the gunshots to confront the shooter.”

Though he has personally chided the school deputy for his inaction during the melee, Israel maintains that he trained his department thoroughly on mass shooting response. His lawsuit states that the Broward County Sheriff’s Office has done active shooter training since at least 2013, and that it required all its deputies to undergo mass shooting training in 2015 and 2016.

Israel says the MSD Commission chair has publicly opined that he did not believe Israel’s suspension was justified. 

One of the suspended sheriff’s primary legal arguments is that the suspension order doesn’t identify the specific duty he is accused of neglecting. 

Though Israel acknowledges that the governor has the power to suspend county officers, he argues the suspension documents are conclusory and vague. The documents key in on missteps by those under Israel’s command, but lack any concrete statement of wrongdoing by Israel personally, he claims. 

Israel also disputes the governor’s accusations that his department mismanaged the response to the 2017 Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International airport shooting, during which a man from Alaska pulled out a legally checked gun from baggage and opened fire on elderly airport visitors, killing six. The assault lasted less than two minutes, and the shooter gave himself up to deputies once his gun was out of ammunition.

There was mass confusion, panic and rumors of a second shooter in the airport long after the shooting was over, which Israel attributes in part to an outdated and “overwhelmed” emergency communications system.

“Sheriff Israel and the BSO had for years pressed the county to upgrade and enhance its regional emergency communication system,” his lawsuit claims.

According to court documents, the matter of Israel’s suspension is pending before the Florida Senate. A hearing is scheduled for the week of April 8.

His attorney, Kuehne, released a statement saying Israel’s ouster was done for “blatantly political and partisan reasons.” 

“The voters of Broward County are entitled to decide who their sheriff is by election. The voters have spoken overwhelmingly in sheriff Israel’s favor,” he said.

Israel had served as Broward County sheriff since his election 2012. His employment background describes him as the first Jewish sheriff in Florida’s history. 

DeSantis has appointed Sheriff Gregory Tony to replace him. 

The governor’s office released a response to the lawsuit shortly after it was filed. 

“In accordance with his Florida constitutional authority, Governor Ron DeSantis suspended Sheriff Scott Israel for neglect of duty and incompetence in executing his statutory duties as Sheriff of Broward County,” the statement reads. “It is lamentable that Scott Israel refuses to be held accountable for his actions and continues to hold disregard for the law.”

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