The tragedy of the Parkland school massacre framed a developing political drama Monday in Florida’s capital, as the state Senate began considering whether to reinstate a county sheriff over the objections of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Just days after taking office in January, DeSantis suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, faulting the lawman’s handling of the Feb. 14, 2018, shootings that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
If the Republican majority Senate sides with DeSantis it would be rejecting the recommendation of an official it appointed to investigate the suspension. That investigator, former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette, concluded that DeSantis was wrong to remove the sheriff from his job.
“There was a case to be made, it just wasn’t made,” Goodlette told the Senate Rules Committee during a long day of testimony that was expected to extend into the night.
The hearings welled with emotion when some relatives of those killed in the Parkland tragedy addressed the panel.
“Even after 20 months, it is difficult to find meaning in this tragedy,” said Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina died in the massacre.
“We didn’t understand the magnitude of the failures by law enforcement. The testament to that failure is 17 dead children and teachers, 17 more with life-altering injuries — a burden we must bear forever,” Petty said.
DeSantis had promised on the campaign trail that he would remove Israel. He did so as one of his first actions after taking office, accusing the sheriff of neglect of duty and incompetence in the way his department responded to the shootings.
“This is an extraordinary case,” George Levesque, DeSantis’ lawyer told the committee. “The governor’s not out there willy-nilly suspending sheriffs because of the actions of deputies.”
Levesque said Israel should be held responsible for the three failures at his department: not appropriately investigating threats made by suspected shooter Nikolas Cruz before the massacre; deputies who didn’t rush into the school to confront Cruz during the shooting; and not establishing an effective command base to respond to the shooting.
The sheriff’s supporters also traveled more than 400 miles from Broward County, just north of Miami, to Florida’s capital city to urge lawmakers to reinstate Israel, who was first elected in 2012.
“Please be the body that doesn’t turn its back on the voters of Broward County,” said Patti Lynn. “Our county voted for Sheriff Scott Israel. It’s up to the voters of Broward County to remove him.”
Israel’s attorney, Benedict Kuehne, said the governor’s office failed to prove that Israel showed incompetence.
DeSantis is required “to prove by facts — not suspicion, not innuendo, not belief — the basis for the suspension,” Kuehne said. “The failure of the governor to prove the charges requires reinstatement.”
It’s an awkward position, especially since the governor will have control of bills and budget items the lawmakers will eventually send his way during the 2020 legislative session.
The committee met after the Senate briefly opened the special session. Senate President Bill Galvano was asked afterward if there was pressure on Republican senators to go along with the governor.
“I have faith in the senators that they’re going to rise to the occasion, look at everything and adhere to the standard, which is what, in their conscience, is best for the people of Florida,” Galvano replied.