Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel was quite the media darling in the wake of the horrific shooting this month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Typically, in times of chaos, Americans look to the senior onscene law enforcement professional for comfort, consolation, leadership, and answers.
However, in the case of the Parkland massacre, fatalistic law enforcement answers continue to be revealed with each passing day — each one a more nauseating shock to the senses.
Instead of making any sense of the slaughter, law enforcement admissions are peeling open raw wounds and causing additional pain to grieving families. It is impossible to provide closure for a shattered community in desperate need of it when a steady stream of missed signs, unconnected dots, and baffling law enforcement decisions are revealed daily.
And the man at the center of the storm is Sheriff Israel.
He didn’t cause this atrocity. He certainly didn’t murder anyone. And he didn’t craft the gun laws that allowed a nineteen year old to purchase ten rifles in a year’s time, or design the mental health privacy protections that shield mental instability treatment records from efforts to purchase an assault rifle.
But before we cast any stones, let us be fully transparent in the responsibility for this colossal collapse of institutions that contributed to this unthinkable, unspeakable, and seemingly preventable tragedy.
The FBI director made a fairly unprecedented admission of guilt, releasing a statement two days after the incident, and acknowledged that a detailed, specific “actionable lead” had been called in to the FBI’s Public Access Line (PAL) on January 5. Inexplicably, that lead never found its way to the Miami field division, where it could have been acted upon.
The Broward County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO), an agency with some 5,800 employees, also bears some responsibility for having responded between 2008 and 2017 to somewhere between 23 and 45 calls about the shooter. The exact number of calls appears in dispute, with Israel claiming the lower number and CNN obtaining records that indicate the higher number.
And though we cherish our First Amendment free speech protections, how many vile, bigoted, incendiary, racist, and outright dangerous utterances in chat rooms and social media postings did the shooter need to make in order to be taken seriously as the threat he ultimately proved to be?
Regardless, we in law enforcement had enough “investigative clues” about this depraved murderer that warranted some type of higher level of scrutiny, surveillance, or even interdiction before he took an Uber to his former high school and announced that “things are about to get messy;” and then made good on his heinous declaration.
But with all the blame to share amongst embarrassed and sorrowful law enforcement, the one figure at the center of this orbit of regret that deserves condemnation and shame is Sheriff Israel.
Not all of us are built to be leaders, especially in times of crisis. For every Lincoln, Churchill, Eisenhower, and Roosevelt — Teddy and Franklin — there are untold millions of mediocre, and just plain abysmal pretenders. They may be decent enough folk and possess the ability to steer the vessel on calm seas. But when the moment most requires their steady hand at the helm, these ill-equipped leaders falter and fail. The gravity of the situation overwhelms them or their own personal objectives outweigh the needs of the organization or the public whose trust they swore to uphold.
They are cultural transgressors to the leadership trade.
And the sheriff position is one that dates back to England and is uniquely political in the law enforcement realm. Sheriffs are not appointed and do not even need to be career law enforcement professionals in order to be elected. And just like with any elected officials, they have to remain keenly aware of their electorate and its whims. Doing the “right” thing for politicians often violently collides with keeping those who put you in office happy.
Politics infects the local sheriff in ways it usually never impinges upon other law enforcement agencies. As with most politicians, a sheriff has to be concerned about the next election.
So in the immediate wake of the shooting, Sheriff Israel was an invited onstage guest at CNN’s televised town hall, which took place exactly one week after the shooting. Knowing in advance of the event that one — and possibly more — of his deputies failed to enter the school and confront the gunman, this knowledge of his department’s failing did little to humble the man.
Israel seized the gifted opportunity to proselytize about gun control and chide National Rifle Association (NRA) spokesperson Dana Loesch in front of a sympathetic audience.
His self-righteous, pious sanctimony played well in front of a crowd of grieving and angry community members who wanted an opportunity to call out the NRA and GOP politicians. But it wasn’t leadership. And it demonstrated zero accountability or acceptance of responsibility.
Israel doubled down on his curious lack of self-awareness in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on last Sunday’s "State of the Union." Tapper gamely pushed back on the sheriff’s absurd claims about his “amazing leadership” of the department, and like the viewer, was stunned to hear Israel recite a childish rhythm — “ifs and buts, candy and nuts …” — when asked if the tragedy could have been prevented if the BCSO had acted differently.
Reminds me of the Book of Proverbs: “Pride goeth before the fall.”
Israel also shamefully downplayed his responsibilities as the leader of his department when he told a reporter from the local NBC affiliate:
“As I said, I’m the Sheriff, my name’s on the door. The people responsible are the ones who took the calls and didn’t follow up on them, as it was with the FBI, as it was with any person.
"Leaders are responsible for the agency, but leaders are not responsible for a person. I gave him a gun. I gave him a badge. I gave him the training. If he didn’t have the heart to go in, that’s not my responsibility.”
Leaders should never portray themselves as victims. Being a leader means accepting the accountability that is attendant to the position. A true leader creates the culture for an organization. Yes, 5,800 employees constitutes a large span of control. But with this lack of accountability and courage from the top of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, don’t expect subordinate leaders to direct their charges any differently.
Sheriff Scott Israel failed his department and continues to fail all of us.
He needs to resign.
James A. Gagliano is a 1987 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Following his service as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Army, he entered the FBI, serving in a myriad of positions in the investigative, tactical resolution (SWAT), undercover, diplomatic and executive management realms. He was a member of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) and has posted to assignments in Afghanistan, Mexico City, and parts of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. He retired in December of 2015 from the FBI’s New York City Office. He currently serves as a Law Enforcement Analyst for CNN, provides Leadership consultation for corporate clients of the Thayer Leader Development Group (TLDG) at his alma mater, and instructs undergraduates at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, where he earned an M.P.S. in Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Leadership in 2016. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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