Upset with Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, members of a union of rank-and-file deputies will vote electronically over the next week on whether they have faith in his leadership.
The so-called “no confidence” vote, slated to begin tonight, is a first for the office.
“A law enforcement union at the Broward Sheriff’s Office has never done this before,” said Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, which scheduled the vote.
The organization represents 1,050 members and its contract covers 1,300 deputies and sergeants. The vote is open to all of them, and will last until Thursday, April 26.
The catalyst for the public show of displeasure was the Parkland school shooting Feb. 14, where a former student opened fire with an assault-style rifle in the freshman building of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, killing 17.
It quickly came to light that the Broward deputy assigned to protect the school, Scot Peterson, did not storm the building to confront the killer, but remained outside and even gave incorrect information to other arriving deputies. The union does not represent Peterson, because he chose not to join. However, Bell said morale at the sheriff’s office “has been absolutely crushed.”
Bell said Israel has refused to take responsibility for the disastrous performance at the school, where several other arriving deputies also stayed outside or took cover behind cars, unsure of where the gunfire was coming from. “The sheriff still blames one person,” Bell said, referring to Peterson. “As an agency we’ve not taken any responsibility for this.”
The sheriff, as well as a commander on the scene and street-level deputies have been pilloried nationally by the media and the public for their seeming cowardice or incompetence in responding to the assault by Nikolas Cruz, a scrawny 19-year-old former student.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, under orders from Gov. Rick Scott, is investigating how the sheriff’s office and other law enforcement agencies responded to the school. Their findings could be used as the basis to remove Israel from his elected post.
Bell said he’ll share the union’s vote, which he expected to show no confidence in Israel, with FDLE and would support the sheriff’s removal from office.
The union, a chapter of the International Union of Police Associations, is in the last year of a three-year contract. It hasn’t begun talks on a new one but has been negotiating in recent weeks for raises and been told there isn’t money for more than a 2.5 percent increase, Bell said.
He denied that the no-confidence vote is being used to pressure the sheriff into raising the deputies’ pay. “They’re two totally separate issues,” he said.
Israel, however, released a statement saying Bell told him in a phone conversation that it would be a good time for him to settle the contract issues, given all the news about Parkland.
It is “unfortunate and appalling,” Israel said, that the union boss would try “to use the Parkland tragedy as a bargaining tactic to extort a 6.5 percent pay raise from BSO through this vote-of-no-confidence ploy.”
Deputies who aren’t at the top of their pay grade already will get a 5 percent increase.
Bell said the union members have a “long laundry list” of complaints about the sheriff’s leadership and claimed that his initiatives, such as giving non-violent juveniles breaks and not arresting them, has restricted the efforts of the deputies to fight crime.
He also faulted the sheriff for inconsistent training that instructs deputies to rush into public buildings to apprehend active shooters but wait for SWAT teams when gunmen are barricaded in houses.
“There is no unified training on this,” Bell said in a phone interview after sending a mass email to news organizations across the country alerting them to the no-confidence vote.
He also alleged possible criminal conduct by a high-ranking member of BSO — the matter involved a 2015 fight with a neighbor — and claimed the sheriff’s office has allowed a private contractor to access free gasoline at police and fire station pumps.
The Broward County Police Benevolent Association said in a statement that the vote of no confidence does not represent its views.
“We will let the FDLE investigation continue and not jump to judgment, as others have done,” Bob Lahiff, director of BSO membership services for the Police Benevolent Association, said in a statement that was tweeted by BSO.
Israel, a Democrat, was overwhelmingly reelected in 2016. He’s not slated to face voters again until 2020.