When embattled Broward County, Florida Sheriff Scott Israel was removed from office in January 2019 by new Florida governor Ron DeSantis, Israel claimed that the decision was partisan, that it had nothing to do with his deputies’ disastrous performance during two deadly mass shootings, and that he had provided “amazing leadership” to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office (BSO). Now, the Florida Senate’s special master has recommended that Israel be reinstated, even though the Supreme Court of Florida upheld the governor’s decision to remove him in the first place.
But I was the executive officer of the BSO. And Scott Israel is lying. He neglected police work in favor of politics. The bloody massacres at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in 2017 and the Parkland high school in 2018 were the most visible consequences. But another insidious effect was Sheriff Israel’s willingness to shatter the morale of the BSO by appointing political cronies to key posts — including radicals linked with Islamist extremism.
I began my law enforcement career serving with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. Under Giuliani, the direction of law enforcement was set by elected officials, but police policies and procedures were left to experienced, non-political leaders of the police department. That, I understood, was how a successful law enforcement agency should function.
That’s not what I observed while serving as the BSO’s executive officer. Instead, I saw politics permeate every layer of the agency until it completely delegitimized what was once the pride of South Florida’s law enforcement. Instead of the BSO functioning as a performance-directed institution, it acted more like a political campaign. Sheriff Israel surrounded himself with well-connected incompetents, who were unconcerned with the daily threats of crime, disorder, and terrorism. Sheriff Israel dared not fire them even when they made the most egregious mistakes. To do so would have harmed his political ambitions.
Upon taking office in 2013, Sheriff Israel appointed as his chief of staff Lisa Castillo, who had no prior law enforcement experience. In fact, she had no major work achievements in any previous position. Castillo served for a brief period as an intern with Mayor Ed Koch’s administration in New York City. From there, she had short stints in mid-level positions in local government. Despite her limited qualifications, the new sheriff apparently believed Castillo was qualified to serve on a very high level in an agency with a $900 million budget and 6,000 employees — and in a county of approximately 1.9 million residents.
However, Castillo brought something more valuable to Israel than education, experience, or competence: Political influence. Castillo was married to City Commissioner Angelo Castillo of Pembroke Pines, an important voting constituency in Broward County.
Pembroke Pines is also the location of the infamous Darul Uloom mosque, which is affiliated with the hardline South Asian Deobandi movement. The mosque’s imam, Shafayat Mohamed, was involved with a South African “backer” of Osama bin Laden. Mohamed has been thrown off several Florida nonprofit boards because of his bigoted statements about homosexuals. (The most notorious example was Mohamed’s 2005 article “Tsunami: Wrath of God,” in which he claimed that homosexuality caused the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. He also called Christians and Jews “perverted transgressors.”) Worse, the mosque had counted among its members several future terrorists, including “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla.
None of this stopped Sheriff Israel from establishing deep ties with Darul Uloom, at the urging of Lisa Castillo.
In August 2014, Israel appointed Nezar Hamze as a full-time deputy. Hamze was a regular attendee of Darul Uloom. When he was hired, he was also the regional operations director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-FL), and had previously been CAIR-FL’s executive director. CAIR has a long history of coordination with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2009, the FBI cut off all collaboration with CAIR after federal prosecutors named the Islamist group as an unindicted coconspirator in the largest terrorism financing case in U.S. history. And in 2014, the United Arab Emirates designated CAIR as a terrorist organization.
Hamze’s colleagues at CAIR-FL are deeply alarming. CAIR-FL Communications Director Wilfredo Amr Ruiz regularly promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including canards about Jewish scripture popularized by the Nazis. CAIR-FL Director Hassan Shibly, meanwhile, has endorsed a Deobandi organization that advocates the mass murder of Ahmadiyyas, a peaceful Muslim sect despised by Islamists.
The decision to hire the extremist-linked Hamze as a deputy was even more scandalous because he failed almost every step of the vetting process for the job. During his initial pre-employment interview in May 2013, three high-ranking BSO commanders — Major David Holmes, Major Michael DiMaggio, and Major Donn G. Peterson — all agreed not to recommend Hamze.
But Lisa Castillo advised the sheriff to overrule his commanders and to hire Hamze as a BSO deputy anyway. Hamze continued his position with CAIR-FL, despite the clear conflict of interest.
Shortly afterward, Scott Israel attended Darul Uloom along with Hamze, telling the congregation that it is important to “surround yourself with like-minded people.” Courting Broward’s growing Muslim voting population appeared to be a priority for both Israel and Castillo. To no one’s surprise, in May 2019, Angelo Castillo announced his candidacy for mayor of Pembroke Pines.
Israel has tried to explain these events as an effort to reach out to diverse audiences. However, Castillo had a remarkably narrow idea of which audiences were considered “diverse.” When staff suggested the sheriff’s office reach out to Jewish and Christian organizations to lecture on post-9/11 security issues, we were met with resistance from Sheriff Israel and his chief of staff. Meanwhile, at the suggestion of Castillo, Israel ordered members of his Community Outreach Unit to participate in prayer sessions at the Darul Uloom mosque on a regular basis.
The rank and file of the BSO, men and women dedicated to their calling, recognized that preventing crime and promoting law and order took a backseat to politics during the Scott Israel regime. The politicization of the agency, the incompetence of the command staff, and the lack of training and experience in dealing with critical incidents created a fatally negative environment that consumed the entire agency. The hiring of Nezar Hamze was only the worst example. It is hardly surprising that morale and training deteriorated, contributing to the disasters at Parkland and Fort Lauderdale.
A wise man once said said: “Experience is the hardest kind of teacher because you take the test first and the lesson second.” Sheriff Israel, his chief of staff Lisa Castillo, and the BSO’s command staff never learned the lesson. They were willing to sacrifice the safety of Floridians in return for short-sighted political advantage. History will not be kind to Scott Israel; he will be remembered as the sheriff whose decisions failed the test of time and whose “amazing leadership” inspired no one.
Russell Di Perna is the former executive officer to the Sheriff of Broward County. He is a retired NYPD officer, and previously served in the United States Marine Corps and United States Navy. He is a graduate of Florida Atlantic University, where he studied political science, and of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, where he pursued Counter-Terrorism Studies.