TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A sheriff suspended by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over the response to the Parkland school shooting testified Wednesday that he properly trained a deputy now criminally charged in the case, but he wasn't able to give him courage.
Suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel is fighting to keep his job after being removed three days after DeSantis took office last January. DeSantis accused Israel of incompetence and neglect of duty and failing to properly train his department for an active shooter situation. Seventeen people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018.
The case against Israel is built largely on the failure of Deputy Scot Peterson, who remained outside the school instead of entering the building as a gunman fired about 140 bullets. DeSantis' lawyer, Nicholas Primrose, focused much of his questioning on Peterson's training and Israel's decision to change the wording of a deputy's responsibilities during an active shooter situation from "shall" enter a building to "may" enter a building.
"You give them the training," Israel said. "You provide them with the polices and the procedures, but no matter what the governor's attorney says at any time, if they think that I can provide any woman or man on this Earth with courage and the desire to go inside when their conscious is telling them, 'I'm not going in there.' There's no sheriff, there's no police leader, there's no football coach or there's no general that's going to get someone to go in when the human element takes over and they say to themselves, 'I'm not going in.'"
DeSantis doesn't have the final say in whether Israel will be permanently removed from office. Israel was testifying before a "special master" appointed by Republican Senate President Bill Galvano to gather facts and make a recommendation on whether Israel should be removed from office or reinstated. The full Senate will eventually vote on Israel's fate. Israel was first elected in 2012 and reelected in 2016. He plans to run for the position again next year regardless of the outcome of the Senate proceedings.
The governor's lawyers didn't call any witnesses to back the assertion that Israel showed incompetence and negligence, instead relying on documents such as a report prepared by a commission appointed to study the shooting, a first draft report gathering information on a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and transcripts of television interviews with Peterson and Israel.
But a lawyer for Israel pointed out that the document charging Peterson with nine criminal counts for failing to take action during the shooting states that Peterson was highly trained but failed to act on his training. The document was based on an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is overseen by DeSantis and the independently elected Cabinet.
Israel also defended his decision to change the language in the department's active shooter policy, saying officers are trained to assess a situation before entering a building.
"The purpose of the policy is to give the officer discretion not to go into a suicide mission. If your child was inside a school, you'd want an officer to go in, but you want him to go in alive to do what he was trained to do, and that's to eliminate the threat to the students," Israel said when he was questioned by his lawyer, Benedict Kuehne.
Later, when being questioned by Primrose, Israel added, "I've been a police officer 40 years and I don't know that there's a day in my life that I haven't been around police officers, and I've never met one — not one — to make a decision to go in or not go in based on 'may' or 'shall.' Police officers will make a decision based on courage — nothing more, nothing less."
In this Jan. 11, 2019, photo, suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel listens to comments by his attorney at a news conference after new Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Israel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., over his handling of February's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Israel testified for seven hours Wednesday, June 19, while fighting to regain his job. A lawyer for DeSantis focused his questions on training that former Deputy Scot Peterson received before the shooting in February 2018. Israel replied that Peterson was trained but there's no way he could have given him the courage to confront the shooter.