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Sheriff Scott Israel Exemplifies The Failures Of Our Institutions


“I gave him a gun. I gave him a badge. I gave him the training. If he didn’t have the heart to go in, that’s not my responsibility.” So says Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a man atop a corrupted institution which failed its citizens in not just one moment, but instance after instance where the laws and policies put in place by the representatives of the people should have been more than sufficient to stop the massacre of February 14th. Israel says this because he knows his future depends on this failure being confined to the cowardice of one individual, now retired, and not behavior established and supported by the culture of the institution he leads.

Except: we already know enough to argue this is not one failure by a school guard who’d earned enough time for retirement, but that it included at least three more Broward deputies, who were hiding behind their cars outside the school when neighboring Coral Springs police arrived. That Israel is so vociferous in his blame for others – for the NRA on CNN’s town hall, for the school guard as a lone actor, for others in his organization for failing to handle repeated reports of the shooter’s red flags – is an indication of how much he wants these questions to go away.

When Israel was previously accused of corruption, he responded with a paraphrased quote from Game of Thrones: “Lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep.” The manner of corruption, though, is illuminating: essentially, it amounts to Israel’s use of the Broward County office as a patronage program, hiring unqualified political allies for cushy county public relations jobs.

From the Sun Sentinel:

The outreach workers, who mainly attend community events, are in addition to political activists and others Israel hired into community affairs roles, writing and designing printed pieces about the agency, and sharing it on social media. The employee log shows six hired into community affairs roles, their salaries totaling 388,729. Israel’s opponents say he’s built a publicly funded political machine, paying back supporters with jobs and using them to keep him in office. They say the money could be better spent, particularly after the sheriff complained about not having enough funding to secure the county courthouse, where a murder suspect recently escaped.

We should not be surprised then that given Israel’s approach to this job, he treats the challenge of leadership as one that is more now about his own handling of public relations and half-hour-long conversations with Jake Tapper as an opportunity to shift blame to others and away from himself. He does this while knowing the truth: that he and the officers he leads had opportunity after opportunity to stop this shooting from happening, that they were given every red flag necessary to act, and that even in the moment it occurred, they failed to run to the sound of the shooting, leaving young men and women bleeding on the ground and preventing emergency workers from entering the building.

But what of the response from Florida Governor Rick Scott – is it to target the institutional rot which clearly allowed this tragedy to happen? No. Instead, we see the same ratcheting effect we see in America today in so many areas of governmental failure: rather than turning inward to remake our institutions so they serve the American people well, so they live up to the promises they have made to our citizens, the rotting and distrusted and negligent institutions seize more power. Our government has failed us, so the answer must be more government. No one is held accountable for failing to follow existing laws and rules and procedures, and instead we are told more laws and rules and procedures must be necessary.

The effect, in the end, is a further degradation of our sense of community and elimination of the ability to have a civil discussion about gun violence. When Sheriff Israel addressed the CNN town hall, knowing fully already how many in his office had failed the people in that room, he was engaged in an act of demonization performance art, and for those who agree with his politics, his push to collectively curse an identified enemy likely worked. The revelations of his own failures will not change the priorities of American media and politicians in this moment. Something must be done, and institutional reform isn’t sexy enough.

Many Americans today are desperate for a community they don’t currently have. They are trying to deal with their anger and work through their frustration. Responsible leadership would focus on responsibility and respect, and turn mutual outrage into a push to clean up the system that has grown fat and happy while ruling us so poorly and failing us so often. But looking for that in this day and age feels rather like Diogenes looking for the last honest man. Being a bureaucrat means never having to say you’re sorry.