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Florida lawmakers call for suspension of Broward sheriff after Parkland massacre as he defends 'amazing leadership'

FILE PHOTO: A woman and a Sheriff's deputy outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after a mass shooting that claimed 17 lives, in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018. (Saul Martinez/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

Republican state lawmakers in Florida called on Sunday for the suspension of Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, accusing him of "incompetence and neglect of duty" in the months before the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and 73 Republican colleagues urged Gov. Rick Scott, R, to suspend Israel, a Democrat who was reelected in 2016.

"Sheriff Israel failed to maintain a culture of alertness, vigilance and thoroughness amongst his deputies," Corcoran wrote in a letter released Sunday. "As a result of Sheriff Israel's failures, students and teachers died."

Israel saidhe would not resign over his agency's handling of the shooting, which left 17 dead, mostly teenagers.

Before the letter's release, Israel said that the agency had stumbled in its handling of red flags about the suspect, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, including at least two warnings that he could carry out such an attack. But Israel said that he should not be held personally responsible.

"I can only take responsibility for what I knew about," he said Sunday morning in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union." "I've given amazing leadership to this agency."

The sheriff has faced intensifying questions about his office's response to the massacre after the revelation that an armed deputy on the scene did not enter the school while the shooter was inside. That deputy, Scot Peterson, retired last week after being suspended.

Israel said he believes Peterson's inactions could have cost lives, but he also has said that he should not be faulted for Peterson's actions.

"You don't measure a person's leadership by a deputy not going in," he said in the Sunday CNN interview.

State Rep. Bill Hager (R-Boca Raton) sent a letter to Scott, the governor, on Saturday accusing Israel of "neglect and incompetence" and calling for his removal. Israel called the letter "shameful" and "politically motivated."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Sunday afternoon that it would launch an investigation, at the governor's request, into the law-enforcement response to the shooting.

In a statement, Israel said his office would fully cooperate with the investigation, "as we believe in full transparency and accountability."

"This independent, outside review will ensure public confidence in the findings," he said.

National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch, speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week," accused the sheriff's office of "dereliction of duty" and said Israel should face increased scrutiny.

"I wish that as much attention were given to the Broward County sheriff and their abdication of duty as trying to blame 5 million innocent law-abiding gun owners all across the country for this," Loesch said. "Families and neighbors called the Broward County Sheriff's Office to report this individual, and they did not follow up."

David Hogg, a senior at the school, called Israel "a good man" during an interview on "This Week" and said that "he cares about the people." But Hogg said there were breakdowns in procedures. "Were there mistakes made? Absolutely."

Local and federal authorities received numerous calls about Cruz before the attack, including at least four suggesting that he could carry out a school shooting and a 911 call saying he had pointed a gun at someone.

The FBI has admitted that it never investigated a January tip saying that Cruz could shoot up a school.

In November 2017, a tip came in to the Broward sheriff's office from a caller warning that Cruz was collecting guns and knives and might be "a school shooter in the making." Cruz's mother had died that month, and he was briefly living with a family in Palm Beach County.

The sheriff's office said that the deputy who took the call never filed a report and that after the massacre, he told investigators that he referred the caller to the sheriff's office in Palm Beach. However, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office told The Washington Post that it had no record of receiving word of that threat.

Israel said Sunday that most of the tips to his agency were handled appropriately but that, in two of the calls, "we're not sure if deputies did everything they could have or should have."

When CNN host Jake Tapper asked Israel if he thought the shooting might not have happened if the agency had done things differently, Israel said, "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books."

He added, "We understand everything wasn't done perfectly."

According to a CNN report, police from the neighboring city of Coral Springs have said that three other Broward deputies besides Peterson were outside the school when they responded to the shooting. Israel said Sunday that only Peterson, then the school resource officer, was at the school during the shooting.

A spokeswoman for Israel's office, in a statement released late Saturday, insisted that there was "no confirmation, at this time, other deputies did not enter the school when they should have."

She said the claim continues to be investigated.

The Coral Springs police said in a statement that they were "aware of media reports" but were not going to comment because of the ongoing investigation.

Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, it has become widely accepted police protocol to respond to active shooters by rushing to the scene and stopping the threat. The Broward County Sheriff's Office has not responded to a request to release its active-shooter policies, but Israel has said that the deputy should have rushed inside.

In a letter to Scott responding to Hager's call for the sheriff to be removed from office, Israel wrote that Coral Springs police received the initial 911 call and went inside the school first without realizing that the shooter had left four minutes earlier, suggesting that these officers believed they were pursuing at least one armed attacker.

In his letter, Israel wrote that these Coral Springs officers were followed by others from that department and Broward sheriff's deputies. However, his letter does not say when any of the responding officers learned that the gunfire had ended and the shooter had fled, nor does it say whether his deputies waited outside the school first before going in.

Israel's office has declined to make him available for an interview with The Washington Post. His interview Sunday on CNN was his second appearance on the cable network in less than a week. On Wednesday, he participated in a televised town hall that the network hosted in South Florida that included survivors of the attack, their relatives and Loesch, the NRA spokeswoman.

At the town hall, the sheriff was sharply critical of the NRA spokeswoman.

Tapper, who also had hosted the town hall, asked Israel in the interview Sunday whether he had known during his town hall appearance that Peterson had failed to go inside the school during the shooting. Israel said that they were still investigating reports about Peterson at the time and that it was not the appropriate time to tell the families about the deputy's actions.

"I couldn't disclose it then," he said. "That's not the way you do things, over a news camera. You do it individually. You meet privately with families. You have compassion. You don't do it at a public forum. And we weren't ready to do it anyway."

Authors Information: Drew Harwell is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post, covering artificial intelligence and big data. Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post. He also anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

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