Scott Israel: A Failure to Communicate

The various appearances before the electronic media in the past week or so by Broward County (FL) Sheriff Scott Israel reminded me of a single scene and a single notable line from a a classic motion picture.

In light of the tragedy that descended upon Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL, Sheriff Israel, a career member of law enforcement and one who has for the most part always said the right things at the right time, for some inexplicable reason has gone tone deaf and failed badly in communicating thru the various forms of broadcast media.

All of which could and should have been avoided, simply by understanding how to craft a properly worded message and use the media to his advantage.

Begin with one of his initial press conferences discussing information gathered to that point about the shootings. Video had revealed that the School Resource Officer assigned to MSD high school did not enter the building during the shooting. This created a firestorm in the media and general public about a career officer who, as the evidence would appear to indicate, failed to do his job and confront the shooter. Sheriff Israel poured verbal gas on the fire by noting the cop in question, Scott Peterson, should have entered the building and “killed the killer”.  Watch at 0:52 of the video for the pertinent words.

This is an emotional time. However, those in positions of authority need to understand their role in tamping down the emotion nd maintaining an even keel.

I’ve had the honor of working with a number of law enforcement individuals and officials over the years. I have found every single one of them to be courageous and diligent in their duty. Since making this comment, I have been inundated with messages from my friends in law enforcement taking Israel to task. Not for suspending the officer in question, which everyone agrees is the right thing to do in this case, but for taking a personal opinion and commenting on an investigation that is still far from being complete.

Indeed, it is the job of the office on duty to engage and deal with the situation. But every current and former cop I’ve been in contact with says what happened here doesn’t yet pass the smell test. They all wish Sheriff Israel had deal only with the facts and not made it personal with his opinions. From a media standpoint, opinions are the raw meat stations, websites and blogs feed upon.

Every law enforcement training I’ve done to this day stresses the need to every individual to stick only to the facts of the case. Do NOT bring opinion into the issue. You, meaning law enforcement at every level, is there to do a job dispassionately and not become personally involved. It not only harms the individual and the Department, but it can be devastating and injurious to the victims and their families.

Days later, as part of the CNN Town Hall meeting, Sheriff Israel went nose to nose with NRA Spokeswoman Dana Loesch. Speaking from my professional standpoint, he was ill-prepared for this confrontation and, in his zeal to make his case against weapons, failed to get his point across in a manner that would have communicated his message properly.

Which brings us to Sheriff Israel’s appearance on CNN in an interview with Jake Tapper. Tapper, one of the best interviewers in the business, was spot on with his line and tone of questioning. At the 2:00 mark, Sheriff Israel pats himself on the back talking about his “amazing leadership”. This is where he not only lost Tapper, and please pay close attention to his facial expression, but he lost all sides of the audience by making it about him.

Let’s be very clear the specific issues we’re talking about here.

I am not here to call for Sheriff Israel to step down. That is for others to decide, including the Governor or Florida. I’ve met Sheriff Israel several times over the years and in those meetings found him to be a dedicated member of law enforcement with the welfare of the community his priority.

However, that’s now what’s coming thru here. There are even commentaries being written as to how Israel’s poor handling of this case and the aftermath could be turned into a victory for the NRA and those on one side of the political battle over gun control.

Sheriff Scott Israel is in the middle of a maelstrom of his own making. In a position of authority where using the media to his full advantage is paramount, he has badly tripped over his own words, sought to inject his own opinions into a case well before the investigation is over, casually tossed those he leads under the bus, failed to take his own level of responsibility for what happened, (which is top of my recommendation for anyone ensnared in such a case, to apologize profusely and take responsibility), has confused the situation with every appearance, and made it more about him than the victims and their families. 

His level of ego and seeming arrogance has done nothing but thrown gallons of incendiary material onto an already smoldering issue that has the entire nation, and many parts of the world, talking about how it could happen and why it wasn’t prevented.

I don’t know if Sheriff Israel and his staff have undergone any level of media training. If they have, it’s obvious he either didn’t listen to the lessons, or the people teaching the course were media neophytes with zero clue what’s necessary in situations like this.

I can tell you that speaking with my contacts in the BSO, none of them have ever received any formal media training. They talk about classes taught by fellow cops, people who have never once actually been part of the media corps and understand the pressures on both sides to deliver.

Sheriff Israel needs to understand that in his role, comforting the community is paramount. Personal feelings must be buried. Investigations must play out to their conclusion.

Glad handing one’s own “amazing leadership” is little more than sticking something sharp in the still open wound of families and friends who seek answers.

And when one is badly prepared to deal with the firestorm, they will reap the consequences.

That’s a major failure to communicate.