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Skeletons In A Lawman’s Closet

road sign indicating Florida State Road 822 to the East and Broward County Road 822 to the West.
photo by Bob B. Brown

When I last discussed Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony in this space, I found him a hard-headed outsider at loggerheads with an insular, defensive law enforcement agency whose departmental reputation was in ruins.

This is as true today as it was three weeks ago, but a lot has happened since then. Let’s catch up.

When Tony was 14, growing up in a crime-ridden section of Philadelphia, he fatally shot an 18-year-old acquaintance after some sort of confrontation just outside Tony’s home. Tony now says he acted in self-defense. His case was handled in juvenile court, where he reportedly was acquitted by a judge; court records are not publicly available, if they exist at all. The Sun Sentinel reported, without directly quoting Tony, that in an interview Tony said he was cleared, which could encompass either an acquittal or dismissal of any charges that were filed.

Apart from the families involved and perhaps some longtime residents of the neighborhood, virtually nobody knew about or remembered the 1993 shooting until a little-known news website called Florida Bulldog broke the story last Saturday. Among the parties who were reportedly in the dark are Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who within three days of his inauguration appointed Tony to replace disgraced predecessor Scott Israel; the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where Tony filed an affidavit asserting he had no prior criminal records sealed or expunged; and the police department in Coral Springs, Florida, where Tony began his law enforcement career in 2005.

Tony is now seeking election to the office DeSantis appointed him to hold. His principal opponent is the aforementioned former Sheriff Israel, who – having failed to recover his job at the state Senate and, later, in court – wants to do so by defeating Tony in a Democratic primary this summer. The final vote will be in November, but Broward County is so heavily Democratic that a Republican victory would be a story about as big as the news of Tony’s past.

I supported Tony three weeks ago. In any race against Scott Israel, I would support him now. (I can’t actually vote for Tony in the primary because I am not a registered Democrat.) Israel was in charge when the Broward Sheriff’s Office, or “BSO” as it is universally known locally, responded disastrously to two mass shootings: one at the Fort Lauderdale airport in 2017 and another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School the following year.

It was the Coral Springs police department – the one where Tony cut his law enforcement teeth, although he was no longer there in 2018 – that raced into the school to hunt for the gunman who killed 17 students and staff and wounded 17 more. When the carnage was over, Israel boasted on television about the remarkable job he and his undisciplined, poorly trained and ineffectively led force were doing.

So Tony, or any other candidate, only needs to clear a low bar to hold my support against Israel. Almost any human with a pulse would suffice. I think Tony is considerably better than that.

The fact that Tony killed an older teenager, one who The Associated Press reported had a criminal record of his own, at age 14 does not strike me as any sort of a disqualifier – not when he was never convicted, not when he never went to jail. How likely is it that a poor, African American kid walked free after an unjustified killing in Philadelphia in 1993? And how likely is it that there would have even been an arrest or a charge if it had been a law enforcement officer, rather than a black kid, who pulled the trigger that day?

We don’t know how Florida Bulldog got onto this story. Tony has made plenty of enemies. Israel’s campaign has a clear incentive to dig up dirt on Tony and leak it, although Israel has denied doing so. Most of the current BSO staff also loathes Tony; he recently came out on the short end of a no-confidence vote by his own deputies. Law enforcement officers tend to stick together. There is a decent chance that someone in Broward’s police community has a friend in Philadelphia with access to old records.

The family and friends of Hector “Chino” Rodriguez, the teenager who died that day in 1993, have not forgotten Tony either. They say he blocked efforts by Rodriguez’s former girlfriend and the daughter they had together – 5 months old when her father died, now an adult – to contact him on social media. They could have generated this story without involving South Florida law enforcement. The news outlet may also have developed the story through its own initiative.

Still, plenty of people have clear motives to find dirt on Gregory Tony. Days after the shooting story broke, someone leaked racy photos from events held by a South Florida swingers club. The photos show a scantily clad Tony and his wife posing with other individuals a few years ago. There is nothing illegal in it, nothing pornographic or scandalous. I don’t care what Tony and his wife do in their personal lives. It is just mud. Yet when you collect as many enemies as Tony has, mud will come flying at you.

Tony is not blameless. He may have been deliberately deceptive in his background checks and job applications. Or he may have sincerely believed, as he now says, that he was never formally arrested or charged in the shooting. Poor 14-year-olds are rarely legal scholars, in 1993 as now. Either way, Tony was at best naive not to bring this up to DeSantis when the new governor was hastily putting him into a high-profile role as part of Israel’s controversial suspension. And Tony was foolish if he believed that, in a hotly contested campaign motivating so many people to look into his closets for any skeletons, none of this would ultimately come out.

We do not publish anonymous comments on our blog, but my earlier column in support of Tony drew this offering (lightly edited for clarity). The commenter called himself “Mike,” but his email address bounced when we reached out to see if he would like to give his full name:

Mr. Elkin
You have no idea what’s going on internally, stick to your job. This man is unqualified and running the Sheriff’s Office into the ground. We are not disgruntled employees, many of us do our jobs with pride. The [no confidence] vote was out of genuine concern for the future of our agency. Do your homework before you jump feet first into a person you know nothing about.

Maybe the author is a genuine BSO employee, or maybe not. The tone appears sincere. It also reflects everything that makes me certain that “my job” as a Broward voter is to choose the best sheriff’s candidate from the available pool to try to fix that department. The writer is basically telling me to mind my own business. That is exactly the message that the BSO deputies seem to want to send to Tony, or anyone else who gets on their bad side.

Besides botching two mass shootings, this department has racially profiled my own colleague twice (and denied it) while on a scavenger hunt for cash it can seize at our airport from travelers who are members of racial minorities. It is the same department where a deputy bounced a teenager’s head off a parking lot pavement. (Tony fired him.) Another deputy was arrested in 2015, on Israel’s watch, on charges of battery and falsifying a report to justify his assault on a shoplifting suspect who, a prosecutor said, “mouthed off” at him. The deputy was convicted last July.

Telling a citizen like me to shut up appears consistent with the culture there. Telling a citizen who has been racially profiled that it never happened, and then doing it again, is inarguably part of the culture there. Gregory Tony doesn’t fit into the culture at BSO, and they want him out.

This is reason enough for me to want to see him stay, even knowing what we now know, and even if we should have known it sooner.

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