photo by Wikimedia Commons user Piotrus
As a resident of Florida’s Broward County, I want to commend our local sheriff’s deputies for their forthcoming endorsement of their boss, Sheriff Gregory Tony.
The deputies won’t see it exactly as I do. Their union leadership is asking them to approve a vote of no-confidence in Tony, who is due to face our county’s voters this fall. But in the eyes of this particular voter, a no-confidence vote by a police force with BSO’s miserable track record qualifies as a full-throated endorsement. Tony can count on my vote in November.
For those who lack a local perspective, this is the law enforcement department that botched its response to not one, but two mass shooting events. Chaos reigned for the better part of a day at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport after a gunman killed five people and wounded six in a baggage claim area. At least 30 civilians sustained injuries in the ensuing panic, during which sheriff’s deputies ran wildly through the airport complex, while workers and passengers scrambled unsupervised across the airfield seeking the safety of hangars on the other side.
That was in January 2017. Thirteen months later, deputies and sergeants cowered outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School while a disturbed former student killed 17 people and wounded 17 more. One of those cowering county Mounties was Scot Peterson, the BSO deputy assigned to be the school’s full-time resource officer. Peterson was the only armed law enforcement officer on the scene when the shooting broke out.
These debacles occurred under Tony’s predecessor, Sheriff Scott Israel. Israel was suspended from the post in January 2019 by newly sworn Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed Tony to replace him. The state Senate later made Israel’s removal permanent. Undeterred, the former sheriff is running against Tony this fall to try to regain his office.
Those two spectacular mass shooting failures are just the featured items on the BSO highlight reel, but there are plenty of others. This is the same department where a deputy bounced a teenager’s head off the pavement outside a fast-food restaurant last spring. It is also the department that has racially profiled my friend and colleague Shomari Hearn not once, but twice, at the airport where it botched its mass shooting response.
And it is the department whose supervisors denied any racial profiling took place in those instances. They just happened to stop and question Shomari twice as he waited to board flights to Los Angeles on business trips. The officer – it was, incredibly, the same deputy both times – was looking for contraband or cash that the department might seize as the alleged proceeds of drug smuggling or other crimes.
The pending no-confidence vote comes after Tony put the deputies union president on paid leave. The union says Tony was retaliating for public complaints that he was slow and ineffective in distributing personal protective equipment to officers in the field amid the coronavirus pandemic. One 39-year-old deputy, an elementary school resource officer, recently died of COVID-19 complications. Dozens of other staffers – mainly in administrative and jail positions, as well as a handful of field officers – have tested positive for the virus.
In correspondence with its members, the union has raised a litany of other allegations against Tony, most to the effect that he exaggerated or falsified parts of his resume before DeSantis appointed him to the position. It looks to me like a regurgitation of opposition research from the Scott Israel campaign. This is ironic, because the union voted no confidence in Israel when he was in office, too.
I don’t have independent knowledge about Tony’s background, and I don’t much care. If the choice is between Tony and a predecessor on whose watch this law enforcement agency achieved its farcical status, it isn’t a choice at all. And from what a civilian can see from outside, it appears that Tony has been pretty firm and reasonably effective at trying to instill some discipline and accountability in a corps of deputies and officers accustomed to running their own show. That, I suspect, is the main reason behind the no-confidence vote.
Personally, I have no confidence in the Broward sheriff’s deputies. I feel fortunate that I live in downtown Fort Lauderdale, which has its own police force. My contact with the sheriff’s department occurs mainly at the airport, and on the rare occasions I need to go to a county building.
Of course there are good, honest, reliable and dedicated officers on that force. That would be true of almost any decent-sized law enforcement agency in America, and it is nothing to take for granted. Individually, each officer puts his or her own life at risk when donning the uniform and stepping outside. I understand that and appreciate it. My own brother, now retired, was a police officer and later a sergeant in Connecticut.
But my sense is that the more of these Broward sheriff’s deputies assemble in one place, the less safe the public gets. I have this sense even though I am considerably older and whiter than Shomari, and thus I am never interrogated by deputies when I wait to board a flight at our airport. Tony might get a vote of no confidence from his disgruntled deputies, but he’ll get a vote for re-election from me.