TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' decision to suspend the sheriff who oversaw the response to the Parkland school shooting was a knee-jerk reaction based on politics, not facts, a lawyer said Tuesday as a Senate hearing began on whether to uphold the suspension.
The lawyer for suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel portrayed DeSantis as using the deaths of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for political gain, saying DeSantis was promising to remove Israel even before the governor was elected in November.
"This is sad, to have politicized the lives of children and adults who were lost to a terrorist at Marjory Stoneman Douglas," said Benedict Kuehne. "Before any facts were laid bare, (DeSantis) began the mantra that Sheriff Israel must go, almost a political mantra."
The hearing was being held before former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette, who was appointed by Senate President Bill Galvano to hear facts in the case and make a recommendation on whether Israel should be removed from office. The full Senate will later decide Israel's fate.
DeSantis suspended Israel three days after taking office in January, saying the response to the Parkland massacre showed incompetence and neglect of duty. Israel said neither was true.
"I've been called some names in my time, but on my 63 years on earth ... I have never been called incompetent and I have never been called negligent," Israel said. "I know these hearings are about taking my livelihood away from me, but incompetent and negligent? No sir."
A lawyer for DeSantis said the suspension was justified, and that the department was unprepared for another mass shooting 13 months prior to Parkland that left five people dead.
The chaos that broke out after a shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport on Jan. 6, 2017, Nicholas Primrose said, was due to Israel's failure "to adequately prepare his deputies for an active duty situation in one of the fastest growing airports in the United States."
"Confusion, unclear command orders and a lack of training resulted in unnecessary chaos and injuries to more individuals, which can only be described as an abysmal response."
Israel said that his department had trained for an active shooter situation at the airport, and that other than the five people who died, he wouldn't change a thing about that day.
"I don't get offended very easily, but to hear (Primrose) this morning say there was confusion and chaos at the airport, of course there was confusion and chaos at the airport. There were 20,000 people running haphazardly, people didn't know where gunshots were coming from, there were people hiding under cars," Israel said. "I'm so proud of the fact that after we arrived only one person was injured, and not seriously."
Primrose also said Israel should be held responsible for the actions of former Deputy Scot Peterson, a school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who failed to enter the school after former student Nikolas Cruz began firing inside. Peterson was charged earlier this month with 11 criminal counts for failing to confront Cruz.
"Any failure of Deputy Peterson is also a failure of Scott Israel," Primrose said. "It's baffling that Scott Israel accepts zero responsibility for the admissions and neglect of the deputies he appoints."
Kuehne said Peterson had received training for active shooter situations and there is nothing in his personnel file that indicated he would fail to act. He also noted that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, overseen by DeSantis and the independently elected Cabinet, doesn't require active shooter training for local law enforcement. He said DeSantis has had nearly half a year to demand that the department set standards for active shooter training and hasn't done so. DeSantis decided to suspend Israel before the department completed an investigation into law enforcement's response to the Parkland shooting, Kuehne added.
Israel will continue testifying Wednesday.