It was one of the worst TV appearances of this short year. When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel if his department could have prevented the shooting, Israel answered: “"Listen, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, you know, O.J. Simpson would still be in the record books."
“I don't know what that means,” replied Tapper. Nobody does. What does O.J. Simpson have to do with the price of tea in China (and isn’t he still in the record books)? More to the point, Israel’s flippant reply belies the fact that prosecutors and legal experts told the Miami Herald that the shooter’s “troubling behavior gave law enforcement plenty of opportunities to investigate and arrest him—and even take away his guns—long before he shot up Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.” What is more, Israel’s weird answer doesn’t comport with reports that at least one of the sheriff’s deputies (and maybe as many as three) waited outside the school during the shooting rampage.
Now, here’s what I keep expecting to happen: I keep expecting Sheriff Israel to become the scapegoat. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve serious blame and condemnation (he does). But what I am suggesting is that his incompetence could be used by those who would prefer to do nothing to stem the plague of school shootings to overshadow everything else we should have learned from this whole experience.
I’m not the only one who suspects that Sheriff Israel is about to become a bogeyman. “Nancy Pelosi should watch out,” writes Michael Graham at CBS News. “The minority leader has a challenger for the GOP’s role of favorite Democrat to vilify, and his name is Scott Israel, sheriff of Broward Country.”
So far, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed hasn’t turned on Israel. But a few days ago, the president called the deputy who waited outside a “coward.” On Monday, he continued the attacks, calling him "frankly, disgusting” and said the other deputies “weren’t exactly Medal of Honor winners.” The president has a point, although the notion that Trump would have “run in there even if I didn’t have a weapon” is laughable and unnecessarily shifts attention back to Trump.
The danger is that by becoming a convenient foil, Israel makes it possible for people to blame him, call for his dismissal—and postpone making any substantive changes.
In the wake of the shooting, I wrote a column outlining a fairly comprehensive reform strategy for preventing the next school shooting. My list included topics such as mental health reform, heightened school security, what I called “common sense” gun control (which might include raising the age for buying a rifle to 21, banning bump-stocks, and universal background checks), examining violent culture and entertainment, reducing school bullying, maintaining the family unit, etc. However, it turns out that my ideas aren’t needed—at least, not if you buy into the theory that one bad police department is to blame for this entire tragedy.
What we need are overlapping solutions that serve as a failsafe in case one area (say, law enforcement) drops the ball. We have to have a multi-pronged approach to this complex problem. The best way to ensure that happens is to remember that Sheriff Israel is only one small part of a much bigger problem.
Revelations of police incompetence also make it less likely that anything bipartisan will happen. Consider Sen. Marco Rubio, who courageously endured booing at a CNN town hall. If the narrative on the right shifts to suggest the shooting was merely the fault of bad policing, he is going to have an even tougher time standing up to the conservative base when it comes to some of the moderate gun control measures he is considering. “Wonder if Marco Rubio would still go in national TV and surrender our rights to the rage mob if he knew Scott Israel's credibility would have the shelf life of room temperature cottage cheese,” writes Jesse Kelly, a pro-Second Amendment activist who failed in a bid for Congress to replace Gabby Giffords.
Thanks, Sheriff Israel.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t focus on law enforcement’s failures; we should. There’s a pattern with many of these mass shootings and terrorist attacks—red flags are often ignored. Whether it is police incompetence or cowardice, a lack of communication, or bureaucratic red tape that ties the hands of law enforcement, we have to hope that these colossal screw-ups at least result in something positive.
Along those lines, on Monday, President Trump suggested he was open to “red flag” restraining orders. This idea was championed by conservative writer David French in the wake of the Parkland shooting. French explains that this is a “process for temporarily denying a troubled person access to guns” by empowering “family members and others close to a potential shooter, allowing them to ‘do something’ after they ‘see something’ and ‘say something.’” It is encouraging that is an idea that would combine concerns about police red tape and also address the mental health aspect of this story.
It is, perhaps, a sign that there is still hope.