Metro Weekly

Sheriff’s deputies’ union leader accused of politicizing gay colleague’s death from COVID-19

Sheriff Gregory Tony has accused BSO Deputies Association President Jeff Bell of advancing a "political agenda"

gay, covid-19, florida

Broward County Sheriff’s Office car – Photo: Christopher Ziemnowicz, via Wikimedia.

A Florida sheriff’s deputy who serves as head of the local deputies’ union was suspended last Friday after he held up a colleague’s death as evidence to accuse Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony of not doing enough to protect deputies from the risk of COVID-19.

Jeff Bell, the president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, a South Florida affiliate of the International Union of Police Associations, has been engaged in an ongoing dispute with Tony over whether his office is providing sheriff’s deputies with sufficient personal protective equipment.

On April 6, Bell penned an open letter that was published in the Sun Sentinel, a South Florida newspaper.

In the letter, Bell slammed Tony for allegedly being slow to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about masks and other protective equipment.

He also invoked the death of Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Shannon Bennett, 39, who died from complications related to COVID-19 on April 3, just four months after proposing to his fiancé.

“[On] March 23, the union advised Tony in an email that the union had taken the initiative to purchase 1,400 3M-N95 masks and was prepared to donate them to BSO. To date, Tony has neither responded to our communications nor even acknowledged his receipt of them,” Bell wrote.

“While BSO employees are being exposed and testing positive for COVID-19, Tony has been politically fiddling with facts like Nero as Rome burned; holding press conferences to state everything is fine,” Bell added.

“Tony, who was picked by Gov. Ron DeSantis to replace former Sheriff Scott Israel, talked his way into our Public Safety Building with claims to being an ‘expert’ regarding such emergencies,” Bell said. “COVID-19 has peeled away the curtains and exposed Tony for the salesman he is. With less law enforcement experience than most BSO road patrol deputies and sergeants, Tony is simply overwhelmed by this public safety emergency.”

In response to that op-ed, Tony held a news conference in which he attacked the union, and Bell specifically, accusing him of exploiting Bennett’s death to advance a “political agenda.”

“I have a rogue employee who decides to politicize and capitalize on a moment when we lost one of our own,” Tony said. “It’s not only dishonorable, it’s unnecessary.”

See also: South Florida police chief was suspended after claiming deputy’s death from COVID-19 was due to being gay

On Friday, Tony suspended Bell with pay and launched an internal investigation into whether the union head had violated guidelines in the Sheriff’s Policy Manual relating to “truthfulness,” “corrupt practices,” employee statements, discretion, and “conduct unbecoming an employee,” according to South Florida ABC affiliate Local 10.

While Bell was unable to comment on his suspension, his lawyer, Eric Schwartzreich, issued a statement saying his client was acting as a whistleblower when he alerted the public to the lack of personal protective equipment for deputies, saying his client was acting “in the best interest of his deputies, first responders and the community as a whole.”

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony – Photo: Facebook.

On Friday morning, Tony gave the local media a tour of the BSO’s emergency operations center, saying that the office has been “ahead of the curve to make sure we procure the proper equipment and that we have a plan in place to disperse it out.”

“I will tell you that there have been some comments made about whether or not we are prepared from the union president, but when you look collectively at what we’ve bee able to disperse, the other day we had already pushed out 25,000 high-quality N95 masks in conjunction with 45,000 surgical masks,” Tony said during that media event. “It’s my goal and our command staff’s goal to not become complacent. We spent over $1.3 million dollars and I’m willing to spend another 10 if that’s necessary.”

In response to Bell’s suspension, the union launched an election by its members to decide whether or not to issue a “no-confidence” vote regarding Tony’s leadership of the department, reports CBS Miami.

In a letter to members, the union wrote: “While the Sheriff has chosen to muzzle and threaten us, rather than work with us, the Union cannot sit back and watch the safety of the membership be jeopardized for what appears to us to be political reasons.”

The results of the vote, released on Monday, showed that 88% of sheriff’s deputies and sergeants voted no confidence in Tony. In a separate ballot of lieutenants, 84% voted no confidence in him.

See also: Campaign for Southern Equality will offer $25,000 in grants to LGBTQ Southerners impacted by COVID-19 pandemic

While the measure is largely symbolic and doesn’t change Tony’s status as sheriff, it does underscore the lack of faith of the rank-and-file deputies in their department’s leader, and could threaten Tony’s re-election chances later this year.

Tony offered his own statement defending his actions to protect his subordinates from becoming infected with COVID-19.

“The command staff and I have worked tirelessly to keep all the men and women of BSO safe during this unprecedented pandemic. We have established procedures to limit exposure to COVID-19 in all areas of operations and have worked to give all of the BSO family the necessary tools to protect themselves as we continue to protect the community,” he said.

“I want to say to the deputies, I hear your concerns,” Tony added. “Following today’s vote, my commitment is unwavering and our mission remains clear. It’s time to unite and work together to continue providing the highest level of professional public safety services to our Broward County community.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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