Miami-Dade Police Deploying Military Unit Randomly Across Town

A truck like the one seen in the training exercise above will be deployed at random Miami-Dade County buildings from now on. (The officers in the photo above are not MDPD cops.)
A truck like the one seen in the training exercise above will be deployed at random Miami-Dade County buildings from now on. (The officers in the photo above are not MDPD cops.) Miami-Dade County Police

In August 2016, a group of campaign finance reform advocates tried to stage a protest inside Miami-Dade County Hall. The protesters, many of whom were elderly, were peaceful. Yet the Miami-Dade Police Department sent an officer to patrol the crowd with a semi-automatic weapon — terrifying some protesters, who said they felt local cops were treating them like enemy combatants in a war zone.

Turns out that was just the beginning. Now activists trying to protest at county buildings could run into a mine-resistant truck or a whole platoon of cops in full tactical armor. MDPD announced on Monday that it will begin randomly sending out its rapid deployment force to various county buildings, including Metromover stops. This is all happening as crime rates in Miami are reaching historically low levels, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement data.

"In keeping with our ongoing homeland security initiatives, the Miami-Dade Police Department (MDPD) today begins to deploy its Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) as an enhanced security presence to deter threats to critical infrastructure sites and soft target locations throughout Miami-Dade County, such as government buildings and the Metrorail system," MDPD wrote in a press release yesterday.

Miami Herald reporter Doug Hanks noted on Twitter that an armored, military-grade truck was sitting outside county hall yesterday during the special county commission meeting on Venezuela:

MDPD seems to understand how powerful an image these vehicles project. The cops repeatedly warn residents to "not be alarmed" and that there is "no heightened state of emergency," tacitly winking at the fact that cops in military gear terrify people. If local police need to repeatedly tell people not to be scared by what they're doing, their actions deserve public scrutiny.

There's been debate for decades over whether local police departments should have the same sort of gear as National Guard troops. MDPD's acquisitions over the last year are a perfect example. In the last 12 months, the department has asked for a whole host of new, military-style equipment upgrades, including millions in tactical gear, rifles, and ammunition. Local street cops can't wear that stuff on regular patrols, but now MDPD has devised a fun new way to make sure all that equipment gets used.

MDPD — the nation's eighth-largest police force — continues to acquire vast stores of equipment with few questions asked by elected leaders. The county commission, which is supposed to keep a check on these purchases, has largely neglected to do so. Earlier this summer, MDPD asked for federal funding for spy planes that would have recorded every single movement in the city's majority-black neighborhoods. The cops applied for Department of Justice funding without consulting the commission, got County Mayor Carlos Gimenez to sign off on the plan, and then quietly asked the commission to "retroactively" approve everything.

Once New Times broke news of the plan, members of the public and local civil-rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, rightfully freaked out, and MDPD Director Juan Perez said the public pressure forced the department to kill the whole idea.

That ordeal says everything about the way the department operates: It sucks up tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money in order to buy gunshot-detectors that probably don't work and untold caches of rifles, money that could easily be spent to help subsidize affordable housing in the city or help needy parents feed their children — initiatives that could actually help cut the crime rate.

MDPD's "rapid deployment unit" is a heavily armored, military-grade group that's supposed to respond to true disasters or terror attacks. But that's not how the police plan to use it, according to their latest press release. Instead, MDPD yesterday said the task force will be sent out to police "terrorism and counter-terrorism response operations, Weapons of Mass Destruction and Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear and Explosives response operations, natural and man-made disasters, post-blast Explosive Ordinance Disposal Support, civil disturbances, protests, riots, and humanitarian aid."

(It's somewhat shocking that MDPD mentions "protests" — an act protected within the U.S. Bill of Rights — in the same breath as nuclear bomb attacks.)

Here are some clips of the rapid deployment force in action. Every time MDPD conducts an RDF training exercise, the department has to repeatedly warn residents not to freak out:

Starting this week, if you take your child to a basketball game on the Metromover, you might have to walk past a checkpoint that wouldn't seem out of place in Raqqa.

"Members of the community should not be alarmed and/or assume that any credible threat to Miami-Dade has been received," MDPD wrote in its news release yesterday. "These random deployments will be ongoing and complement our efforts to thwart those that may wish to do us harm by showcasing our readiness and ability to respond and protect our county."

This, of course, is classic fear-mongering: MDPD hasn't said there's any actual, credible terror threat that justifies this, or explained why its current anti-terror policies are somehow not working. (City of Miami Police recently used this exact tactic to justify outfitting 148 police cruisers with brand new semiautomatic rifles.)

Crime stats suggest this is the safest era Miami has seen since the 1960s, before the city's major cocaine era in the late 1970s began. But local cops haven't adjusted their actions accordingly: There are 35 police departments across Miami-Dade, and nearly all of them own military gear. It should, theoretically, get harder to justify parading around in trucks topped with gun turrets as the crime rate plummets.

So far, the opposite has happened.

Update 3:30 p.m.: Miami-Dade Police Lt. Juan Villalba Jr. sent a New Times a statement about their rapid deployment unit, arguing that comparisons to the military are incorrect and disagreeing that the unit frightens residents. Among his comments:

In regards to your statement that the “MDPD's "rapid deployment unit" is a heavily armored, military-grade group,” please understand the following. The RDF uniform being worn during these deployments consists of our Class-B uniform (the same uniform worn by our uniformed officers throughout Miami-Dade County on a daily basis), with the addition of a ballistic helmet, gas mask, and protective body armor worn on the exterior of the uniform. The weapons carried by officers on this deployment are standard issue MDPD firearms used by officers throughout Miami-Dade County.

Your statement that our agency warns residents not to be alarmed, “tacitly winking at the facts that cops in military gear terrify people,” is misleading and not factual. As you know, we included verbiage in our statement that reminds our community not to be alarmed and/or assume that a credible threat to Miami-Dade has been received. Our intention in this reminder is simple. We do not want Miami-Dade residents and/or visitors to assume that this deployment came about as a result of any imminent and/or credible terror related threat.

Moreover, your statement that “Starting this week, if you take your child to a basketball game on the Metromover, you might have to walk past a checkpoint that wouldn't seem out of place in Raqqa,” entirely lack factual basis. The MDPD is not conducting any such “checkpoints” as part of this deployment, and no such language was included in our advisory. If you were unclear as to what the deployment entailed, our Public Information Officers are always available to answer questions for you.

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.