Miami-Dade Police Request $6.5 Million for License-Plate Readers, Night-Vision Rifles, and Ballistic Shields

As part of an "aggressive hiring plan," the Miami-Dade Police Department wants to beef up its stockpiles of weapons, armor, and ammo. And the force is asking county commissioners for millions in new body armor, "ballistic shields," and night-vision rifles, as well as a controversial license-plate-reading system.

The request, which is outlined in a memo regarding tomorrow's County Commission agenda, would run $4.3 million for the weapons and armor, with an additional $1.2 million for the license-plate readers, which run motorists' plates to see if they have outstanding warrants or are driving stolen vehicles.

Those readers, however, are among the most controversial civil-liberty issues in modern policing.

At the moment, it's unclear how many people the department is looking to hire or the exact number of weapons the department wants to buy. (MDPD didn't immediately reply to New Times' message about the request.)

But according to the memo, the department's existing pool of money dedicated to "equipment and supplies" — one of many MDPD funding sources — is just $6.8 million, meaning the force's budget would nearly double under the request, to $11.1 million. The department's equipment budget was last set in 2012, and its funding levels were set to expire next year. Per the memo, the equipment will be used to outfit new recruits.

(The request is bundled with a $322,000 request from the county Department of Corrections, which is asking for extra money to buy handcuffs, leg irons, holsters, and training ammunition.)

Meanwhile, the department is asking for another $2.9 million from the department's Law Enforcement Trust-Fund, which is basically a huge pool of money taken from people via civil forfeiture — that is, money seized from accused criminals (which is also among the shadiest practices in law enforcement). 

The request likely to turn the most heads, though, is the $1.2 million that MDPD wants for the purchase of license-plate readers.

Across the nation, civil-rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union claim police are using such devices to suck up information about civilians without their knowledge or consent. According to Wired, even the FBI was ordered to stop buying plate readers in 2012, after one of the bureau's own lawyers got weirded-out about civilian privacy. The ACLU maintains the devices are basically used to track the movements of entire cities in large-scale dragnets.

In Miami, the plate readers have become a mainstay during Memorial Day weekend in Miami Beach. South Florida cops claim the plate readers help them solve crimes, but elsewhere, the devices have been used in some ways that don't exactly scream "transparency."

Philadelphia police in May were caught disguising a plate-reading truck as a Google Maps vehicle, much to Google's surprise. One public-safety expert said the reader that the department had disguised was "scary efficient" and could suck in multiple license-plate numbers in a "fraction of a second."

Police spending, in general, has come under scrutiny in recent years: In 2014, New Times chronicled some of the bonkers items that departments in South Florida had acquired through the Department of Defense's 1033 Program, which donates military-grade equipment to police forces. Miami Gardens Police apparently needed two grenade launchers under that plan. (The DOD later asked police to give back the grenade launchers.)
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.