By Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press
The Florida Senate handed a political victory to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday, as the chamber backed the suspension of a county sheriff who the Republican governor said bungled the response to last year’s mass shooting in Parkland that killed 17 people.
The 25-15 vote for removal was no surprise in the Republican-dominated Senate, considering that the Rules Committee just two days earlier had sided with the governor’s decision to oust Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel.
With the tragedy framing the debate and emotions sometimes fraying, alliances transcended party allegiances, with some Democrats signaling their support for removing Israel. In the end, three Democrats voted for removal, while one Republican sided with the now-former sheriff.
Some, like Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, said the rawness of the tragedy influenced their decision.
“Seventeen people died,” she said after the vote. “To put that aside … I couldn’t do it.”
Removing an elected official from office was a difficult decision, she said, “but there are times when someone should not have that job.”
Lori Alhadeff, whose daughter Alyssa died in the shooting, watched the debate from the Senate gallery. Afterward, she said she took another step toward closure.
“There is finally accountability for the many failures. His incompetency as sheriff led to the death of my daughter Alyssa and 16 others,” she said.
In a statement emailed by his attorney, Israel said “politics won the day.”
“Law enforcement in Florida fundamentally changed tonight. The office of sheriff, once accountable to the people and the law is now subject to the petulant whims, political paybacks and personal piques a partisan tyrants in Tallahassee,” Israel’s statement said.
On Feb. 14, 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed 15 students and two staffers.
A former student, Nikolas Cruz, was arrested shortly after the shootings and faces 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
During a court hearing on the same day the state Senate considered Israel’s dismissal, a Florida judge said she intended to proceed with a trial early next year, with jury selection set to begin on Jan. 27.
Israel, who was first elected as Broward County sheriff in 2012, has vowed to run for his old job next year. DeSantis has said he would not seek to remove Israel again, should the lawman win the confidence of Broward voters.
“It’s not going to be something that will matter to me either way,” DeSantis said Tuesday.
In a statement released by his office after the vote, DeSantis said he hoped “the outcome provides some relief to the Parkland families that have been doggedly pursuing accountability.”
The Senate’s decision to strip Israel of his job came despite the recommendation by an investigator appointed by the chamber that the sheriff be reinstated.
Israel’s supporters said his removal would embolden DeSantis and future governors in removing other elected officials for political reasons.
Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican and former president of the Florida Senate, made an impassioned plea to reinstate Israel, saying that removing him would be “anti-law enforcement.”
“When we go home and jump into a selfie with our sheriff — because I know how good that looks on our campaign pieces — make sure he knows what we did today,” Lee said.
Senate special master Dudley Goodlette said no evidence was presented to suggest Israel’s policies or his training of deputies were inconsistent with Florida standards. Goodlette attributed the shooting deaths to “individual failures,” especially on the part of the school resource officer on duty who had failed to enter a school building and confront the shooter.
During his bid for governor, DeSantis partly campaigned on removing Israel from his post in Broward County, a Democratic stronghold. Days after taking office, DeSantis used his authority as governor to remove the lawman, deeming him incompetent in his department’s Parkland response.
DeSantis also criticized Israel’s handling of the 2017 shootings that killed five people at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
After the vote, some senators said they would pursue a review of the governor’s authority to remove elected officials from office.
But Senate President Bill Galvano did not seem eager to do that.