1 Year After Parkland Shooting, New County Sheriff Determined to Restore Faith
By Linda Robertson
Gregory Tony ended his career as a cop to start a business teaching people how to protect themselves in a mass shooting and treat bleeding victims. No longer would he be subduing killers but training a frightened nation how to survive an epidemic that has turned nightclubs, concert venues, offices, churches and schools into firing ranges.
Two years later, one of the scenarios in his company's curriculum came to pass on Tony's old turf. A troubled 19-year-old named Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with an assault rifle and killed 14 students and three staff members on Valentine's Day, 2018. Tony's former comrades on the Coral Springs police force responded in textbook fashion and were the first to rush into the school.
Tony was far away in South Carolina, but he sent a Facebook message expressing his sorrow for Parkland. He couldn't help longing that he'd been on duty that day, perhaps able to stop Cruz and save lives.
Now Tony returns to a place scarred not only by bloodshed but by bitter regret that the Parkland massacre could have been averted.
He returns as sheriff of Broward County, the most powerful political position in the state's second-largest county. He was the surprise pick for a role that requires him to be chief crime fighter, shrewd leader and nimble administrator of a department with 5,430 employees and a $918 million budget.
It is an enormous job that many in the colorful and scandalous history of the Broward Sheriff's Office have struggled to do well, a job that no one could have predicted for Tony at this juncture in his life -- a 40-year-old former cop who held the rank of sergeant in a suburban department for three years. Tony grew up in the poor, crime-ridden Badlands neighborhood of North Philadelphia determined to escape and do something altruistic with his life.
For years he's kept a note taped to his computer that reads "Service=Reward" and although it is "torn, coffee-stained and faded, it reminds me of my purpose every day," he said.
Tony and those who know him well say he is the ideal man to restore faith in BSO and its deputies, whose response to Cruz's rampage was criticized as chaotic and cowardly in detailed reconstructions and reviews.
"We need to tell the public there was a failure here, but no complacency in fixing things," he said. "The confidence aspect was absolutely shattered and will take time to rebuild. As we look back at February 14, 2018, this is a chance to get it right."
Tony said his first priority is to revamp training for his deputies so that schools and other public places are safer in the event of an active shooter attack.
"Coral Springs and Parkland didn't think it could happen, just as Columbine and Sandy Hook didn't think it could happen, but it continues to happen," Tony said. "Be prepared so you don't have to get prepared."
Tony, Broward's first black sheriff, was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to replace Scott Israel, who was suspended Jan. 11 by DeSantis for what he called "a pattern of poor leadership" and "repeated incompetence and neglect of duty" in response to the 2017 mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale Airport and last year at the high school.
Among those surrounding Tony the day he was sworn in were Parkland parents -- the driving force behind the unlikely ascension of a low-profile ex-police officer to Broward's highest-profile position. He was swept into office on a tide of grief.
"A lack of leadership and training led to the death of my daughter and 16 others," said Lori Alhadeff, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, was killed by Cruz. Alhadeff, a former teacher, has since won a seat on the Broward School Board, founded the organization Make Our Schools Safe and witnessed the signing Wednesday of a New Jersey law requiring installation of silent alarms in all public schools -- a law she's lobbying for in Florida. "Greg Tony has a sense of urgency and the expertise to find answers."
Alhadeff is impressed by Tony's compassionate nature -- a trait she said she never saw from Israel. Through his company, Blue Spear Solutions, Tony conducted a free bleeding-control training session for Broward students last summer.
Andrew Pollack, whose daughter,Meadow, was killed at Stoneman Douglas High, first met Tony at a Crossfit gym eight years ago. He pushed then-Gov. Rick Scott and DeSantis to pick Tony.
"It's a very unconventional choice because there is nothing in Tony's background to suggest he's the right guy to run BSO, which, even under the best circumstances, is an almost impossible-to-run agency always boiling with crises, dissension and cantankerous cliques," said Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor. "Nor has any Broward sheriff taken office under the specter of death, facing this kind of intense scrutiny. But it's also an innovative choice because he's coming from outside BSO culture with a clean slate.
"Everybody is rooting for Gregory Tony."
Tony has no desire to be a placeholder sheriff. He announced Thursday that he plans to run for the post in 2020 as a Democrat.
"I knew coming in that if I was going to do this, I'd have to be all in," said Tony, whose salary of $188,262 is set by county charter and state law.
Israel -- a Democrat in Florida's bluest county and a gun control advocate -- is not going quietly. He's accusing DeSantis, who was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, of a "political power grab," appealing his suspension to the state Legislature and opening a legal defense fund to challenge his ouster. He plans to run for his old office, which means he could be pitted against his successor.
"If you're cynical, you could argue DeSantis picked a weak candidate to give a Republican a strong chance of winning the sheriff's office in 2020," said Jarvis, who co-authored a book called "Out of the Muck: A History of the Broward Sheriff's Office, 1915-2000." "But Tony has an opportunity to go out and mend a lot of fences in what has grown into a racially polarized county. To do that you have to be politically savvy. He has a short window to convince voters he's not a DeSantis puppet, he's capable of managing a large agency and he can keep schoolchildren safe."
Israel was criticized for changing BSO's active-shooter protocol so that it was no longer mandatory for deputies to immediately confront the shooter. Poor communication, malfunctioning radios and slow reaction time of deputies on the scene were also cited as part of an inadequate response by BSO. The deputy assigned to the school hunkered down outside as Cruz blasted his way down hallways. A BSO command officer froze and took cover behind a car at a critical moment. A deputy described the carnage in the Freshman Building as "Apocalypse Now."
Yet Israel bragged about his "amazing leadership" on national TV during a CNN interview.
"The sheriff has to be humble -- especially following Israel. Humility would be a good thing for Tony," Jarvis said. "Under Israel, BSO blew it at the airport and didn't learn anything that they applied at the school. Tony has to show he won't make the same mistakes as Israel."
Tony was affable, witty and forthright in his forest-green uniform with four gold stars on each collar and shiny patent-leather shoes when he met with reporters Thursday at BSO headquarters. He said he was humbled when he first walked into the building and met some of his 2,800 deputies. During his transition, he's hired only two outsiders -- his undersheriff and his chief of staff -- and otherwise promoted from within BSO, grateful to "tap into their 30,000-40,000 years of experience," he said.
"We've got a lot of brave and dedicated people. I was disappointed that a small fraction failed the community and didn't go in" at Stoneman Douglas High, he said. "We'll have strong leadership from the top and be accountable from the top down."
He has already increased the number of teaching positions from six to 25 so that every deputy receives state-of-the-art training for active shooter and mass casualty situations every year. Some can't recall the last time they had a refresher course or performed drills, which he called "unacceptable." He also wants to add facilities -- such as a defensive tactics training room -- upgrade the communications system and clarify policies.
Tony's experience as CEO of Blue Spear Solutions, although brief, makes him "tailor-made for this position," DeSantis said.
Tony ran the company with his wife, Holly, a registered nurse. He studied 600 active-shooter cases dating back to 1966 to develop his programming. Blue Spear trains civilians how to prevent and react to active-shooter and mass casualty incidents, including treatment of gunshot wounds. The company performs threat assessments for schools and businesses.
Blue Spear "created the first online curriculum for bleeding-control training and certification for responders," Tony wrote on the company website. "Our training platform is being used by thousands of people from across the world and we wish to educate our own schools rapidly."
Tony designed what he calls the Active Shooter Survivability Improvement Strategy (ASSIST) to teach bleeding-control techniques. His goal is to make "Stop the Bleed" training a "social responsibility" much like CPR training.
"We're trying to buy time before the professional first responders get on the scene," Tony said. "With any type of life-threatening arterial bleed, you have roughly three minutes or less to stop that bleed. Civilians are going to become what will be coined 'the immediate responders.' If we can empower them, supply them and train them, it's going to improve survivability rates."
Blue Spear did a workshop for Transylvania County, N.C., school teachers in August. Using mannequins, plastic body parts and bleeding control kits embossed with the company's logo, Tony, his wife and his staff showed teachers how to apply direct pressure, tie tourniquets, attach chest seals and pack wounds with combat gauze. About 500 kits were placed in classrooms.
"They take it very seriously, very professional, very well organized," said Jeff McDaris, Transylvania schools superintendent. "Safety is No. 1 and this provides another layer and opportunity to prepare for things we hope never happen, but we'll know what to do if they do happen. We want all our staff trained and eventually that could even spread to our student population."
Emergency medical research conducted since the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012 found that 30-40 percent of victims in mass shootings die from survivable injuries, Tony said.
"We saw it at Pulse nightclub," he said of the Orlando shooting that killed 49. He praised Coral Springs' police response at Stoneman Douglas High, when they treated 24 students using bleeding control techniques and 14 "are here today as a byproduct of the exact same equipment and exact same training" that Blue Spear provides, Tony said.
Tony has conducted training for 25,000 people in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina and worked with state governments, schools and Fortune 500 corporations.
The Blue Spear site features videos of Tony and wife Holly demonstrating aid procedures; a photo of the company van ("How long does it take to bleed to death? 3 minutes or less. Learn how you can save a life today," with a photo of a grimacing police officer having a tourniquet applied to his leg); a special "offer for all our courses: enroll before Oct. 31 and receive a free General 7 Combat Application Tourniquet (CAT) or "sign up today and spend the next 10 days with your family learning how to save a life;" postings of news reports ("If Georgia can order 29,000 bleeding control kids for over 2,500 schools why can't we do this in Florida?") and updates on shooting incidents ("Hope is not a strategy. Will you start preparing today?" and "Will this one change our country? Or shall we continue to sleep at the wheel?" and "70 percent of all Active Shooter Events are over within 5 minutes. Five minutes is a lifetime for the untrained and unprepared. #rememberstonemanvictims").
Sad as it may be, Stoneman Douglas student and Never Again activist Lauren Hogg posted a recent photo of the bleeding control kit and freshly painted 'where to hide' symbol that she sits next to every day in class, lamenting that "this is what going to school in America has become."
Tony wants to transfer his passion for educating the public to instructing his deputies.
"Greg saw an urgent need, was totally committed to building that business, and gained valuable managerial experience in the private sector," said Jon Soares, Tony's patrol partner in Coral Springs and best man at Tony's wedding. "He's also one of the best two or three cops I've worked with -- very proactive, knowledgeable and fair -- and will be an excellent sheriff."
Tony has handed the reins of Blue Spear to Holly and cut all ties to the company while he's sheriff.
Tony grew up in North Philadelphia's inner city, where he graduated from Olney High in 1997. His mother, father and one of his three sisters all died from cancer, and he hasn't talked to his other siblings in years, he said.
As a kid, he got in trouble for spray-painting graffiti on walls. He said on his Coral Springs P.D. application that he smoked marijuana twice as a teen and was ticketed for driving with a suspended license. But mostly, he focused on football.
"Where we come from in North Philly, surviving beyond age 21 is an accomplishment," said Renato Lajara, Tony's best friend since middle school. "There are drug corners, addicts and prostitutes everywhere, and we lost many friends to gun violence. But we made a pact to make something of ourselves and help others."
"And, amazingly, we've stayed on that same path," said Lajara, director of elementary education for the Cheltenham school district in Pennsylvnia and a former principal and teacher.
They were devoted Florida State fans and concocted a fantastic plan to move to Tallahassee: Tony would play for the Seminoles' football team and Lajara would play for the baseball team.
"I wanted to run as fast as possible and get out of there to chase my dream of playing for FSU," Tony said.
When no scholarship offers materialized, Tony got a job at Sports Authority and saved $500. On New Year's Day, 1998, the two friends left home for the first time, made their way to the Sunshine State and enrolled at Tallahassee Community College. Lajara got homesick after one semester, but Tony stayed, worked as a personal trainer, transferred to FSU and walked onto Coach Bobby Bowden's team as an undersized fullback. Bowden singled Tony out for his gumption and named him the Seminoles' Top Walk-On in 2001 and 2002. He won a Top Strength Index weight-training award. He was also known as one of the team's best dancers.
"I remember him as a very sharp, very hard-working young man," said Billy Sexton, running backs and scout team coach under Bowden. "Walk-on athletes have a special kind of energy and persistence. They want to compete."
After graduating with a criminology degree, Tony worked as an academic counselor to 300 inmates at Wakulla Correctional Institute, then as an auditor and contract administrator at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
He joined the Coral Springs police force in 2005 and served on the SWAT team for five years before being promoted to sergeant.
He was commended for his "thirst for knowledge and experience" and initiative in guiding younger officers by showing them training videos and breaching techniques.
"He is a natural teacher and mentor," his evaluation said.
Now Tony's picture hangs on a wall with those of his predecessors, including five-time sheriff Walter Clark, who, along with his chief deputy -- his brother Bob -- skimmed money from a thriving illegal casino racket in Broward. He was suspended by one governor, reinstated and re-elected before being suspended by another governor in 1950. Ken Jenne was in line to become governor before he admitted to accepting improper payments from BSO contractors and went to prison in 2007. Nick Navarro, Broward's first Cuban-born sheriff, became a celebrity when he raided rap group 2 Live Crew's shows and charged Luther Campbell with violating obscenity laws and starred on the COPS reality TV show. Ron Cochran was popular for his sensitivity and for putting cops on bikes to bring community policing to Broward.
"BSO is both a crime-fighting organization and a political organization," Jarvis said. "We've had career lawmen like Navarro and Allen Michell who were terrible and we've had consummate politicians like Ed Stack and Bob Butterworth who were successful. Clark was a racist good-old-boy who ran gambling joints and hired big, beefy guys to beat you up, and Ed Lee was a former minor league baseball player, and they were both beloved.
"So there is no definitive profile for sheriff -- except that it's high-visibility with your name plastered everywhere, you have to reach out to everyone and you cannot make a misstep. I wouldn't want Tony's job."
Sounds overwhelming, but not to Tony's close friend Lajara.
"We know what it is to be hungry, to come from poverty, to persevere and achieve goals," Lajara said. "There were a lot of people we couldn't protect in the Badlands, so we decided to make saving lives our mission -- me in the classroom, Greg in the community. He's not going to stop working until BSO is a model department."
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