Parkland Commission Chairman's Support of Sheriff Outrages Victims' Families

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel Photo by photo-gator / Flickr
As chairman of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, Bob Gualtieri was supposed to bring accountability to the families that lost loved ones in that school’s massacre on Valentine’s Day.

But Tuesday, Gualtieri slapped those families across the face.

Gualtieri, the Pinellas County sheriff who was appointed to the commission by Gov. Rick Scott, announced in a TV interview filled with contradictions that he wasn’t recommending Broward Sheriff Scott Israel be removed from office for BSO’s many and massive failures in response to the shooting that left 17 dead and others wounded.

At first he said Israel should be held responsible for the agency’s failures. Then he basically reversed course, saying Israel shouldn’t be held accountable. “Just because your people are imperfect or in some cases wrong or in some cases negligent or in some cases act improperly or engage in malfeasance or misfeasance... that doesn’t mean the sheriff did,” Gualtieri said in an interview on WTVJ.

The reaction from the families of the dead and wounded was swift and damning. Ryan Petty, who sits on the commission and whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina was slain that day, has repeatedly called for Israel’s ouster. He said Gualtieri was speaking only for himself, not the commission, and should have made that clear in the interview.

Royer Borges, whose 15-year-old son Anthony is still recovering from horrific injuries he suffered after being shot five times on the third floor of Building 12, said he was outraged by Gualtieri’s words and considered them a slap in the face. “They try to cover for each other,” Borges said. “It’s very disgusting. Still nothing has been done to hold anyone accountable.”

Though the victims' families disagree on certain issues, including gun control, they are united in their belief that Israel needs to be removed from office by the governor, said Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow was killed in the shooting. “We are all together on this,” said Pollack, a conservative who opposes gun control. “All the families are very upset with [Israel]. He’s an outright liar. He lied to [Gualtieri’s] face, and [Gualtieri] is OK with that?... And it’s not just us. It’s the whole community that wants Israel out. He’s a liar.”

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was killed in the shooting and who has become a leading national gun-control advocate, also condemned Gualtieri’s defense of Israel. “I find this very upsetting,” he said of the interview. “I think the sheriff failed our families, and I think Sheriff Israel needs to be replaced. Out of Parkland so far, there’s been no serious accountability that will force anyone to change a damn thing.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
The list of failures by the agency is long. Six deputies, including school resource officer Scot Peterson, didn't enter the building during the massacre even though they heard gunshots. Some of them wasted valuable minutes putting on vests; one deputy actually asked another to wait with him. After the vests were on, the deputies still didn’t do what their training dictated: enter the building and neutralize the threat.

Though on paper they were up-to-date on training, several deputies in later interviews with the MSD commission said they couldn’t remember when they last had active-shooter training or what was taught. The commission found training inadequate.

The BSO commanding officer, Capt. Jan Jordan, responded to the wrong building and spent eight minutes there. Her first radio call wasn't to order the deputies to go in as their training dictated; it concerned setting up a perimeter. When she finally responded to the correct building, she hid behind a patrol car with other deputies while Coral Springs Police officers pushed into the building. Other deputies described her as “overwhelmed,” “ineffective,” and in a “trance-like state” during the chaos.

Israel had personally hired Jordan, an old friend from his days at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, out of retirement. He recommended her for the command post despite the fact she had little command experience. He defended her until her actions were fully exposed at MSD commission hearings last month and she resigned.

In interviews after the shooting, Israel refused to take responsibility for the agency’s failures, claiming infamously in a CNN interview that he had shown “amazing leadership.” Asked what the agency could have done differently to save lives, the sheriff blithely answered, “If if’s and but’s were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books.”

As Pollack said, the sheriff also apparently lied about his agency’s response in interviews and in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott. “Only one law enforcement officer was ever on campus — at any time — during the attack — Deputy Scot Peterson,” Israel wrote the governor in bold and underlined words ten days after the attack.

That statement turned out to be patently false. At least six deputies arrived to hear the gunshots, and some of those heard were fatal ones.

Then, at MSD commission hearings last month, Israel testified that one reason deputies didn’t enter the building during the attack was that Peterson never notified them shots had been fired. This, again, was patently false. One of Peterson’s first radio transmissions included the words, “Shots fired.”

The question that remains is whether Governor Scott or Governor-elect Ron DeSantis will remove Israel from office for neglect of duty, incompetence, or malfeasance. Scott has said he is waiting for the results of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation of the shooting before making a decision. DeSantis, for his part, basically made Israel's removal a campaign promise. He’s also put several of the sheriff’s staunchest critics — including Pollack and Petty — on his public safety transition committee.

But Guttenberg said at this point he’s not counting on politicians to hold Broward officials responsible for failures at MSD. Instead, he's putting his hope in lawsuits filed by the victims' families to bring some accountability. One of those lawsuits, filed by Pollack, won a victory Wednesday morning when a judge ruled Peterson had a duty under the law to enter the building to protect students and staff.

“All of the families’ lawsuits are going to force accountability in systems that failed our families,” Guttenberg said. “Those people need to feel pain; they need to pay a price.”
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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman