If you’re active on social media this month, you may have seen several articles and tweets touting a conspiracy theory related to the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The essence of these claims is that the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO), in collaboration with the Broward County School District (BCSD), had ordered their deputies not to arrest juveniles for a variety of crimes in order to artificially reduce their statistics and qualify for lucrative state and federal grants. Both BSO and BCSD are controlled by Democrats, and this policy, the conspiracy believers claim, explains why the dozens of complaints about the Parkland school shooter, Nikolas Cruz, were ignored.

Here’s the wild part: there may be some truth to this conspiracy theory.

Fair disclosure: I initially disregarded the claims because they seemed to lack supporting evidence, except fuzzy PDFs to draft documents with unclear sourcing and links to long narratives on websites often described as “hyper-partisan clickbait” and “extreme conspiracy sites.” When I cite an anonymous source in my articles at RedState or elsewhere you see my byline, I’ve given my editors a heads up and it’s always someone I’ve communicated with directly, not some second- or third-hand hearsay. That did not appear to be the case with these posts.

Government corruption, incompetence, and laziness are quite believable, and there are countless examples to find connected to this school shooting, such as the BSO deputies’ failure to enter the school, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel’s ridiculous attempts to shift blame, and the BSO’s own protocols not requiring deputies to engage an active shooter.

But an active conspiracy to avoid arresting juveniles, even at the expense of public safety? Sounds like it’s time to get out the tin foil hats.

Sheriff Israel bragged about ordering his deputies not to arrest juveniles.

Then, while looking up past articles about Sheriff Israel, I came across an August 27, 2016 Sun Sentinel article, “Sheriff’s hiring of political supporters under fire,” discussing his re-election campaign that year. The article focuses on Israel’s controversial hiring of political cronies — including “three associates of the notorious political trickster Roger Stone” — for well-paid “community outreach” positions, and the accusation that these jobs were political paybacks and Israel was using the outreach unit as his own re-election machine.

Near the end of the article, Israel’s response to his critics is described as dismissive — “lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep” is mentioned as “one of his well-worn sayings” — and includes this little tidbit:

He cited a dramatic drop in violent crime during his tenure, and the issuing of thousands of civil citations — rather than arrests — for juveniles.

Further searches of the Sun Sentinel article archives finds Israel’s 2016 candidate questionnaire. The last question asked Israel why he was running and what gave him an edge over his opponents, and part of his answer addressed crime rates and juvenile arrests:

…The results speak for themselves. As our sheriff, I successfully implemented new policies and approaches to public safety that sharply reduced violent crime and burglary rates – the sharpest declines in the entire State of Florida. My innovative initiatives also helped keep children in school and out of jail, greatly expanding the juvenile civil citation program and making issuance of civil citations mandatory for BSO deputies….I will build upon these impressive successes in my next term as Sheriff.

Interesting: according to Israel’s own on-the-record comments, his deputies were issuing civil citations instead of arresting juveniles, and the issuance of civil citations was “mandatory.”

Is Broward County’s system out of line with accepted criminal justice reform practices?

It’s important to note here that juvenile justice has been an important element of successful criminal justice reform measures over the past decade or so. Conservative reform advocates like Right on Crime support alternatives to incarceration that seek to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” wherein school disciplinary troubles lead to criminal records. This is especially true regarding what’s referred to as “status offenses,” the infractions that would not be crimes if committed by an adult: truancy, running away from home, alcohol or tobacco possession or consumption, etc.

But wanting to give a second chance to a troubled kid who skips class to smoke cigarettes under the bleachers is a far cry from ignoring serious criminal activity and acts or threats of violence.

A Miami Herald article last week noted that, contrary to media reports, Cruz had never actually been expelled from the Broward County School system, despite a long and well-documented history of extremely disruptive and occasionally violent behavior:

At times, Nikolas Cruz’s behavior could be a school administrator’s nightmare: Teachers and other students said he kicked doors, cursed at teachers, fought with and threatened classmates and brought a backpack with bullets to school. He collected a string of discipline for profanity, disobedience, insubordination, and disruption.

In 2014, administrators transferred Cruz to an alternative school for children with emotional and behavioral disabilities — only to change course two years later and return him to a traditional neighborhood school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Cruz was banished from Douglas a year later for other disciplinary violations — then toggled between three other alternative placements, school records obtained by the Miami Herald show.

If the frequent transfers — records show there were six in three years — did little to stanch Cruz’s disruptive behavior, they eventually became the only option left in the school district’s toolbox. Contrary to early reports, Cruz was never expelled from Broward schools. Legally, he couldn’t be.

“Legally, he couldn’t be” expelled? Or arrested, apparently.

BCSD’s own written policies discouraged arresting students — even for violent or threatening behavior.

Some answers can be found in the “Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline,” which was approved and adopted at the Broward County School Board meeting on November 5, 2013, a year into Israel’s first term in office.

The Agreement’s abstract describes how it “symbolizes the support for Broward Schools’ efforts to reduce suspensions, expulsions and arrests (particularly among youth of color) from all of the groups which are signatories and/or mentioned in the agreement.” Besides the BCSD, among the signatories to the Agreement are the Broward State Attorney (the prosecutors), the Broward Public Defender’s Office, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice…and the BSO.

The introduction to the Agreement quotes Florida Statutes Section 1006.13(1), regarding the Florida Legislature’s intention “to encourage schools to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies by addressing disruptive behavior through restitution, civil citation, teen court, neighborhood restorative justice, or similar programs.”

Perhaps notably, the omitted first part of that subsection states that it is the Legislature’s intent “to promote a safe and supportive learning environment in schools” and “to protect students and staff from conduct that poses a serious threat to school safety.”

A footnote in this Agreement cites subsection (4) of this same statute:

(4)(a) Each district school board shall enter into agreements with the county sheriff’s office and local police department specifying guidelines for ensuring that acts that pose a serious threat to school safety, whether committed by a student or adult, are reported to a law enforcement agency.
(b) The agreements must include the role of school resource officers, if applicable, in handling reported incidents, circumstances in which school officials may handle incidents without filing a report with a law enforcement agency, and a procedure for ensuring that school personnel properly report appropriate delinquent acts and crimes.

And again, a perhaps notable omission: Subsection (8) emphasizes the importance of safety, stating (emphasis added):

(8) School districts are encouraged to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies unless the use of such alternatives will pose a threat to school safety.

Without getting too far buried in the weeds, the Agreement lists certain “Non-Violent Misdemeanors” (see page 3), and describes these offenses as “best handled outside the criminal justice system.” A “Discipline Matrix” is provided as Exhibit A that sets forth appropriate responses to various first-time and repeated misbehaviors, including when a law enforcement referral is recommended.

According to the Discipline Matrix, the encouraged responses to “Minor or Non-Criminal Misbehavior” and “Non-Violent Misdemeanors” include a series of non-criminal interventions, including verbal warnings, “taking the student out of the situation to cool off,” talking to the student’s parent or guardian, and referral to the “Collaborative Problem Solving Team” or the “PROMISE program,” an alternative education center offering counseling and behavioral services.

If these options succeed, the Discipline Matrix instructs that the proper response is to “resolve the situation without an arrest.”

If these options fail, are deemed unlikely to be effective, or the student refuses to participate, then the Discipline Matrix says that the student “may be arrested.” Note that the language says “may,” not “shall,” and this lack of a mandate includes even those actions that constitute a “Felony or Serious Threat to School Safety.”

Just to be clear, so far we have established:

  • Sheriff Israel said that he instructed BSO deputies to issue juvenile civil citations, not arrests;
  • The BCSD’s own written policy encouraged handling even criminal activity “outside the criminal justice system”;
  • The BCSD’s own written policy did not actually require arrests, even for felonies and serious threats to school safety;
  • Cruz’s behavior included repeated disruptive behavior, violent outbursts, threats, and physical assaults on other students; and
  • Cruz was never expelled or apparently arrested for this behavior.

But what do the crime and arrest statistics actually show?

The story gets really interesting when we look at the actual data on crime during Sheriff Israel’s tenure.

There are multiple news reports from the past few years with BSO touting reductions in juvenile arrests, as well as tweets, like this one from BSO Public Information Office Director Veda Coleman-Wright:

An August 2017 post at PublicSource.org describes Broward County’s program as a model for other school systems, and notes that their “bold solution” was to “lower arrests by not making arrests.” BCSD went from the number one county in Florida at sending students into the juvenile justice system, with 1,062 school-related arrests in 2011-2012, to dropping to 392 in 2015-2016, among the lowest in the state.

A March 31, 2015 Sun Sentinel article reported the reduction in arrests of Broward County students, but noted an increase in suspensions, and this eerily prescient quote from Maria Schneider, head of the juvenile unit in the Broward State Attorney’s Office, who called the program “a work in progress”:

We’ve accomplished reducing the arrests. Now it’s “how do we keep that up without making the schools a more dangerous place.”

Digging into the actual crime statistics provides the final piece of the puzzle. Data compiled by the Broward County Crime Commission and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows relatively steady numbers for various types of reported violent and non-violent crimes, but a far more substantial decrease in the number of juvenile arrests.

Specifically looking at Israel’s time in office (he was elected in 2012 and sworn into office in 2013), this report compares 2013 and 2014, and this one compares 2015 and 2016. Reviewing the data reveals some fluctuations up and down for various types of crimes, but generally holding steady even as the county population increased. The 2017 figures are not yet compiled into an annual report for the FDLE website, but the Sun Sentinel reported “an uptick in overall crime” for Broward County that year.

A spreadsheet available for download on the FDLE website (the link labeled “Juvenile Arrests by Gender and Offense“) provides the total number of juvenile arrests in Broward County each year from 1998-2016. Just looking at the years relevant to Israel’s tenure (starting with the year before he took office as a comparison) gives us these figures:

2012: 6,853 total juvenile arrests
2013: 5,814 total juvenile arrests
2014: 4,831 total juvenile arrests
2015: 3,616 total juvenile arrests
2016: 3,644 total juvenile arrests

That’s a more than 15% reduction in arrests from 2012 to 2013, a nearly 17% reduction from 2013 to 2014, slightly more than 25% reduction from 2014 to 2015, and then holding pretty steady through 2016 with a less than 1% increase.

Remember, the crime statistics count those crimes that have been reported. The age of the perpetrator is not necessarily known until there is a confession or a conviction after a trial. In other words, knowing that a burglary was committed does not indicate whether the crime was committed by a 15-year-old juvenile or a 25-year-old adult.

Therefore, we can logically conclude that if the crime statistics show relatively steady reports of crimes being reported, but a sharp decrease in juvenile arrests, then no one is being arrested for a significant number of crimes occurring in Broward County.

I mean, it’s technically possible that the young people in Broward County suddenly started committing fewer crimes at a rate out of step with state and national trends, and the county’s adults simultaneously went on a corresponding crime spree, but that’s highly unlikely.

The reasonable interpretation — taking into consideration Israel’s own comments, the BCSD’s own written policies discouraging arrests, and the crime and arrest data for the relevant years — is that it does, in fact, appear that the BSO, under the leadership of Sheriff Israel and in collaboration with the BCSD, were engaged in a deliberate effort to avoid arresting Broward County students, even when they had committed crimes. 

The more people learn about the operations of the BSO, the angrier they get. From the multiple, specific, credible complaints they received about Cruz, to the dozens of visits to his home, to the BSO school resource officer’s refusal to share information with Department of Children and Families investigators about a previous incident involving Cruz, to the reports that a total of four armed BSO deputies remained waiting outside the school during the shooting, to the misrepresentations by Israel about his agency’s own protocol for engaging an active shooter, the systemic failures of the BSO to take action to derail Cruz from his deadly ambitions are infuriating.

But wondering if there are any other potential Nikolas Cruzes being similarly ignored by the BSO…that’s terrifying.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.

[Disclosure: Sarah Rumpf was previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and worked directly on the Right on Crime initiative. This article reflects the opinion and research of the author, and should not be attributed as reflecting the views of TPPF or ROC in any way.]

[Cross-posted at RedState.]

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