The Suspension of Officials in Florida Has Become a Form of Political Theatre

It was late in the evening as the orange sunlight peeked through unto the podium. Governor Ron DeSantis approached the podium with his characteristically stoic expression. In front of him was an audience of reporters and citizens. Behind him stood over a dozen critics of the Broward County Sheriff, Scott Israel. Israel had been criticized for his handling of the Valentine’s Day massacre which left 17 people dead inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD). On the campaign trail, DeSantis had promised to remove the sheriff from his post. That Friday afternoon, he came to fulfill that promise.

“Today, I have issued an executive order suspending Scott Israel as sheriff of Broward county,” the governor announced.

The audience cheered before DeSantis gave the podium to Andrew Pollack. Nearly a year ago, Pollack’s daughter had died at MSD during the shooting. Nearly a week after her death, he stood with his sons before the president demanding that changes be made, and schools be protected. He has since then been on the forefront of the nation’s school safety dialouge but not without some controversy. While many MSD students, teachers and parents harshly criticized the National Rifle Association, Pollack has publicly embraced the organization. The Republican party has in turn embraced Pollack. Before leaving Tallahassee for Washington, Rick Scott made nearly 100 last minute appointments; one of them was Pollack for Florida’s board of education. Pollack relished his new role, hoping he could use it to keep school officials accountable.

Pollack introduced each of the Parkland parents present at the conference. Each of them came up to give their statements, celebrating the decision to replace Israel. Two of the parents, Max Schachter and Ryan Petty, had served on the commission which first exposed the failures of Israel’s office in a report earlier that month. Pollack was last to give his thoughts.

“You don’t always know with politicians,” Pollack said of DeSantis. “But today proves that he is a man of word.”

Pollack shook the governor’s hand firmly and thanked him before handing over the podium.

DeSantis didn’t take too kindly to Scott’s last squeeze of gubernational power. Shortly after suspending Israel, DeSantis would manage to withdraw nearly half of his predecessor’s appointments, including Pollack. If Pollack feels any sense of betrayal from the governor’s actions, he hasn’t said so. On the contrary, he is moving forward as if he was a school board member, confident that he will be reinstated. It’s unclear how much of DeSantis’ decision was about control and how much of it was about appearances. Whatever the case, he wasn’t going to let the former governor decide his government for him.

DeSantis approached the podium, pulling out his speech from his breast pocket.

“The neglect of duty and incompetence connected to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been well-documented and I have no interest in dancing on Scott Israel’s political grave,” DeSantis said. “Just suffice it to say that the massacre might have never have happened had Broward had better leadership in the sheriff’s department.”

DeSantis’ new pick for Broward County Sheriff couldn’t have been more perfect. Gregory Tony had served in the Coral Springs Police Department (CSPD) which – unlike the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) –  was praised by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission for their response to the Parkland shooting. During his time there, he worked on a SWAT team, the type unit which would have exclusively handled active shooter situations pre-Columbine. After leaving the department, Tony focused on developing his business, Blue Spear Solutions, which provides active shooter training and threat assessments for schools and businesses. But Tony may have been given his position for reasons bigger than his qualifications as his appointment marks an historic turn for Broward county and for Florida.

“And on the same day that I pardoned the Groveland Four, Gregory Tony will be the first black sheriff in the history of Broward county,” DeSantis announced proudly as the crowd cheered.

The Groveland Four were four black men accused of raping a white women in 1949, but denied a fair trail. Their pardon was largely symbolic as all the men have died. By connecting Tony’s appointment to the Groveland Four pardon, DeSantis made Israel’s suspension bigger than Parkland. He made it about race as well.

The gesture was not lost on Scott Israel. When he vowed to fight his suspension, he did so outside the New Mount Olive Baptist Church, a staple in Fort Lauderdale’s black community. Ron DeSantis’ opponent in the gubernational campaign, Andrew Gillum, made an appearance at the church during the recounts. Had the recounts swung in his favor, Gillum would have been Florida’s first black governor. Israel himself had spoken at another predominately black church months ago about his civil citation program designed to keep kids out of jail for minor crimes; a program for which he was criticized after it was revealed that his office ignored warnings about the Parkland shooter’s behavior. Israel also was known in the black community for his efforts to make his office more diverse. His decision to rebut the governor outside Mount Olive Baptist surrounded by black leaders was a statement. He was signaling to his critics that he too also had the support of the black community and that his refusal to go down quietly was no slight to the new sheriff.

No one could have predicted that Israel’s suspension would become an issue of race, but DeSantis had brought that into the narrative. Despite his matter-of-fact manner of speaking and his sometimes stoic personality, his flare for theatrics was never more obvious than on that Friday afternoon. Since taking office, DeSantis has become known for his sudden and sweeping actions. He had at one point asked the entire Florida water board to resign. But his suspension of Israel had been long  anticipated by the media, his supporters and even Israel himself since he took office. When DeSantis delivered, he made it as optically beneficial as possible, but that only distracts from a fundamental problem with Israel’s suspension.

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Over the past two decades, almost all suspensions made by a Florida governor through executive order have been directed at officials who committed felonies or misdemeanors. Of Scott’s 50 suspensions, only three had not been charged with crime. One was Brenda Snipes whose suspension was overturned by DeSantis. The other two were Darryl Wright and David Di Pietro who served on the North Broward Hospital District board. Both were suspended for reportedly interfering with the inspector general’s investigation of a Broward hospital. Di Pietro, the board chairman, got his suspension overturned after a short lawsuit. The judge in that case ruled that the then-governor’s letter of suspension made no specific allegations against Di Pietro and therefore held no merit. DeSantis’s letter of suspension for Israel has the same problem.

A suspension letter lists reasons for the suspension following a bold, capitalized “WHEREAS”. These ‘whereas’ statements generally don’t’ run longer than two pages – usually just long to explain why the suspended official was arrested – but DeSantis’ letter for Israel ran for five pages without providing many substantive reasoning. Many of the statements didn’t even involve Israel directly but rather criticized the actions of his office. For example, the letter cites school resource officer, Scot Peterson’s, failure to confront the shooter as one of the reasons for the sheriff’s suspension, citing that Peterson was “working on behalf and in place of Scott Israel.” But the actions of Peterson may not legally be considered the fault of Israel. While DeSantis holds Israel responsible for the failures of his officers, a judge might not.

Among the few ‘whereas’ accusations for which Israel is directly responsible is that his office’s active shooter policy was inadequate. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission exposed one serious flaw in the BSO active shooter policy from whom Israel took full responsibility. The BSO active shooter policy states that a deputy “may” confront the shooter as opposed the CSPD Policy which states that an officer “shall” confront the shooter. The slight difference of verbiage may have been irrelevant had the performance of both agencies had not also been vastly different. While CSPD was slower to respond to the scene than BSO because they had received information later, they were quicker to enter the building where the shooting took place when arriving on the scene. When he gave his testimony to the commission, Israel defended his policy. “’May’ allows a deputy discretion,” he said. “It allows a deputy to think on his or her feet. ‘May’ allows a deputy to be armed with real-time intelligence, carrying out a mission, preparing, if you will, to answer the east side door.” Israel went on to give an example of a deputy who is told that the east door is booby-trapped. ‘May’ according to Israel would allow that deputy to go around and find a new way in instead of going on a “suicide mission”. But “may” also allowed BSO deputies to spent well over a minute putting on bullet proof vests as the shooter fired his last shots and escaped from the building.

But this action is far from a crime and should Israel fight his suspension in court as he vowed to do, it may not be egregious enough to a judge to justify his suspension.

The Florida Senate, however, could be a whole different animal.

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Scott Israel was not the only high-profile suspension made by Ron DeSantis. The governor also suspended Susan Butcher, the Palm Beach county supervisor of elections. Then-governor Rick Scott had accused both Butcher and Snipes of fraud late one evening outside the governor’s mansion. Like DeSantis, Scott had a flare for theatrics and his accusation made the performances of both election supervisors a subject of political spectacle. Once the recounts were done, Snipes had turned in her letter of resignation, but Scott wanted to suspend her anyway as a symbolic gesture. DeSantis, however, opted to over-turn the suspension in exchange for the resignation, thus bringing an end to the mello-drama. Snipes was pleased with the arrangement, saying that it allowed her to leave the office with dignity. Butcher, on the other hand, never wrote a letter of resignation or received a letter of suspension until now.

DeSantis’ decision to suspend Butcher is surprising for a few reasons. For one, the intensity of the 2018 election controversy has been melting. Most politicians who filed lawsuits over the issue have pulled out of litigation. Secondly, not even Rick Scott felt the need to suspend Butcher. Butcher’s failures in the 2018 mid-term recounts could largely be attributed to poor decision-making or machine failure or both. Snipes, on the other hand, had been accused of fraud in the past by other politicians. If it could be proven that she had committed fraud, she could be charged with a crime and a suspension would be out of the question. While DeSantis’ letter of suspension does accuse Butcher of breaking the law by failing to report ballots accurately and on time, she has never been charged with anything.

Nonetheless, Butcher will not fight her suspension and instead hopes that the governor will accept her resignation as he did for Snipes. The reason she won’t fight her suspension is that most suspension battles lead to the Florida Senate and she doesn’t believe she will be treated fairly there. Butcher’s concern was not echoed by Israel but it is valid. The Senate is an inherently political body and has no obligation to rule on suspensions purely based on legal merit. Republicans hold the majority there while both Butcher and Israel are Democrats. A suspension battle, therefore, might not end whatever political grandiose might lie behind DeSantis’ suspensions. Rather, they may bring them to a fever pitch.

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Robert Runcie, the Broward County School Superintendent, was also criticized for his leadership leading up to the Parkland shooting. With Israel gone, eyes are now on him. Pollack even called for his ouster in the same press conference announcing Israel’s. At the end of that press conference, journalists asked DeSantis if he planned to suspend Runcie. The governor told them he’d have to look into his legal authority to do so. He knew could suspend superintendents who were elected. Earlier that afternoon, he had suspended the Okaloosa Superintendent for reportedly mishandling abuse. Runcie may be another story.

When asked if he would suspend Runcie should he have the authority to do so, DeSantis said he would listen to the families.

“Andy, you know where my office is,” DeSantis said to Pollack. “I know you’re up there.” DeSantis may have been refering to the fact that Pollack will working in Tallahesse as a school board member alongside the governor. Of coarse, DeSantis removed Pollack from his post to undo Scott’s last show of power shortly after this press conference.

“I can tell you,” Desantis continued, “that in that report (the one issued by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Safety Commission) there were obvisiously security failures and there were failures of law enforcement but there were some really ergerecious failures on the part of the school district so I’m willing to listen to the familes about what they may think is best for them.”

But many of the families have already voiced their desire to see Runcie outed. Pollack is perhaps is the most vocal of them, but the other three men at the conference, Ryan Petty, Max Schachter, and Fred Guttenberg have said they want to see Runcie resign or be removed.

Whether or not DeSantis has the authority to out appointed superintendents is unclear. Less than half of Florida’s school districts have elected superintendents while the others are appointed by the governor. While politicians have tried to require all school districts to allow voters to pick their superintendents, the policies have not changed. In fact, voters in districts made the decision not to choose their superintendents. Back in 2010, then-governor Charlie Crist suspended an elected superintendent, but then began appointing interim official to fill the spot before the power was given to the school board. But the situtation in Monroe was different than Runcie’s in more way than just election verus appointment. Like most suspended officials, Monroe County Superintendent, Randy Acevedo, was charged with a crime. Runice hasn’t been charged with anything.

But that hasn’t stopped DeSantis before and another press conference could be on the horizon soon.

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