Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel is a lot like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who scurried out of his marmot hole in February -- and was so fearful of his own shadow, he scampered back below for six more weeks.
Above-ground has become a cruel world for Broward Sheriff Punxsutawney.
As the nation has been fixated since Feb. 14 on -- in many ways, overwhelmed by -- Parkland students’ protests, the one constant before the TV cameras, the sheriff who criticized the National Rifle Association and loudly called for stricter gun control laws, has drifted to the background.
And just ... well ... disappeared.
You might ask, "Who can blame him?" The governor wanted him investigated. Seventy-three state legislators want him fired. Meanwhile, his deputies search for a rudder.
As Jeff Bell, president of the Broward County Sheriff’s Deputies Association and a deputy who has been with the Broward Sheriff's Office for 22 years, told The New Yorker magazine in March, “We feel like we’ve been deserted. A ship at sea, just drifting. No sense of direction whatsoever.” A former senior employee of the BSO, who asked not to be named, also said of Israel, “If he survives this, morale will never be the same. And it’s already as bad as it’s ever been.”
Between the deputies who stayed safely outside the school during the shooting to the warnings the Sheriff's Office got about the shooter, this is a messy cleanup for Israel. Even with the increased focus on his department after the school reopened under heavier security measures, Gov. Rick Scott was motivated to bring state troopers in to serve as guards when a Sheriff’s deputy had been discovered sleeping while the shooter’s brother was found trespassing on campus.
All of this has led to the once-prominent Israel becoming a dead-of-winter groundhog, a specter, at the same time the Parkland activist aftermath swelled into a nationwide cause.
So now, what is Israel doing with his time out of eyeshot?
As The New Yorker writes -- focusing "on the politics of prolonging his tenure."
The man who told millions of Americans watching CNN's "State of the Union" in the wake of the tragedy, "I'm an amazing leader," has engaged a professional management team to help resuscitate his flagging reputation and stature.
A local group has started a 501(c)4 non-profit, using money collected from anonymous donors for telling purposes. Entitled “People For A Safe Broward,” the new outfit is funding a crisis management firm -- Mercury -- to rehabilitate Scott Israel’s image. According to its website Mercury declares, “We solve problems and deliver results for our clients. We know what it takes to win in difficult situations.”
Not long after Mercury was brought in, reports appeared in select news outlets concerning a story that swirled around Israel during his election. A YouTube video was made years ago by a young woman who suggested Israel had an affair with her as a 17-year-old. She had been compelled to get an abortion. The new stories that came out featured the same girl from those videos admitting she had been paid at the time to make up the story, and post them as a hit piece.
As valid as these reports were to pushing back on social media narratives, they had the distinct feel of an orchestrated PR maneuver to create "victim Scott Israel." The details of the video were from 2012, and they had absolutely nothing to do with the events of the shooting. The only pertinence was Israel's image-rebuilding, and this did little to repair any of the bad press directly related to the shooting aftermath.
Scott Israel released a statement about this new group: “Our community has come together. I am grateful for the counsel that many have provided and I will continue to welcome the support of organizations like People for a Safe Broward. We all share the same goal, which is to protect our community.”
The Miami Herald looked into the origins of this new non-profit organization that Israel claims "the community" started up. The primary founder of People For A Safe Broward is Amy Rose, who served as Scott Israel’s campaign manager during his 2016 election.
So, here we are. During a time of great community strife and still-raw emotions over the murder of 17 Broward citizens, the sheriff has busied himself with forming an outfit designed to collect money so he can hire a firm specializing in personal crisis management -- to fix a public persona many folks say he deserves.
In other words, after revelations of numerous issues within a broken Broward Sheriff’s Office, the repairs Scott Israel appears most concerned with are those to his tattered public image.
Is it even possible to rehab Israel's reputation at this point? Remember, Broward County is famous for its history of lively and sometimes unsavory sheriffs. Read "Out of the Muck: A History of the Broward Sheriff's Office, 1915-2000." It features bootleggers, bribery and Al Capone.
Maybe Israel will survive Parkland. When you've got guns to blame and history on your side, maybe it doesn't matter that sheriffs who make their own rules are so ingrained in the Broward fabric.
But, we need to think of Sheriff Israel today, the 19th anniversary of the deadly shooting at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. and the huge impact it had, particularly on law enforcement practices during crises.
A Little History about Columbine
On April 20, 1999, senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured 21 additional people, and three more were injured while attempting to escape the school. After exchanging gunfire with responding police officers, the pair committed suicide. (See Wikipedia.)
Using instructions obtained on the Internet, Harris and Klebold constructed a total of 99 improvised explosive devices of various designs and sizes. They sawed the barrels and butts off their shotguns to make them easier to conceal.
On the day of the massacre, Harris was equipped with a 12-gauge Savage-Springfield 67H pump-action shotgun (which he discharged a total of 25 times) and a Hi-Point 995 Carbine 9 mm carbine with 13 10-round magazines (which he fired a total of 96 times).
Klebold was equipped with a 9×19mm Intratec TEC-9 semi-automatic handgun with one 52-, one 32-, and one 28-round magazine and a 12-gauge Stevens 311D double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. Klebold primarily fired the TEC-9 handgun for a total of 55 times, while he discharged a total of 12 rounds from his double-barreled shotgun.
The massacre sparked debate over gun control laws, high school cliques, subcultures, and bullying. It resulted in an increased emphasis on school security with zero tolerance policies, and a moral panic over goth culture, gun culture, social outcasts (though the Harris and Klebold were not outcasts), the use of pharmaceutical anti-depressants by teenagers, teenage Internet use, and violence in video games.
Procedures in law enforcement agencies across the nation changed after the Columbine shooting because it was all over so quickly. Today, without exception, officers at an active shooting are instructed to "go in and engage the shooter immediately, with ideally four officers. But you go in with one, if necessary. You don’t wait.”
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz used an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle to kill 14 students and three teachers and wound another 17 on Feb. 14, four Broward County deputies waited outside. They did not go in, they did not confront the killer, they waited.
That "crisis engagement" is in Broward deputies' training manual. In fact, all the lessons of Columbine are in the manual.
“This (Parkland) school shooting was a failure of protocol and procedures" learned during Columbine, a former Broward sheriff told The New Yorker. "The red flags were there ... about this guy. We didn’t connect the dots. ... There were some failures involved, certainly, and they were paid for with kids' lives."
With his effort to rebuild his stature in the community, Israel shows no sign he will resign. But, then, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation of Sheriff Israel's office is yet to see the light of day. Hard to believe Mercury's marketing magic will impress FDLE.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith. Brad Slager is a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer who writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.