Miami-Dade County Hid Details of $450,000 Grant for Police Tech and Supplies

Miami-Dade County Police
Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez
The Miami-Dade County Commission must sign off on any grants or funding requests county police ask for. But at today's commission meeting, elected officials will be asked to retroactively approve a $450,000 Department of Justice grant that MDPD oddly already applied for.

Even more mysterious, someone at the county level hid the details of the grant from the public, claiming the money was going to be used for "sensitive" purposes that needed to be kept quiet for "security reasons." MDPD only disclosed what the money would pay for — including surveillance gear like automatic license-plate readers, "covert recorders," solar cameras, handheld ID readers, and GPS tracking devices, as well as a slew of tactical gear and ammunition — after New Times asked about the application.

Had New Times not filed a request to find out what was in the grant application, it's likely the county would have voted on the measure without disclosing to the public what it was voting on. That's concerning because much of the technology the grant will pay for — like license-plate readers and GPS trackers — remains controversial among criminal-justice reform and civil-liberties advocates.

Lee Cowart, a spokesperson for MDPD, said County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams' office wrote the county memo that sought to keep the request secret. He said there was nothing in the request that MDPD wanted to hide.

"My understanding was that the county did it," he said. "Most of the items in here seem like mundane stuff. It's a lot of training gear and Simunitions," which he explained are fake "simulated ammunition" rounds used to train police recruits.

Neither Price-Williams nor county mayor spokesperson Mike Hernandez responded to messages from New Times about why the request was written that way.

According to police records, the grant, if approved, will remain in effect from 2016 to 2020. MDPD says the Department of Justice has agreed to send the county $455,880 through its Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, which will help fund the police by "investing in specialized equipment and training in all critical areas." The Byrne JAG program is one of the federal government's most well-known and longest-running funding measures for local police departments.

Typically, application details are included in county commission documents, so elected officials and the public can scrutinize major funding and policy decisions. But not in this case: The county merely noted the application — and what MDPD wanted to pay for — was "on file" if commissioners or the public wanted to get their hands on it.

"Because this application contains security-sensitive information, a copy of the application is on file and not attached to this resolution," county documents read.

This is the second time this year MDPD has been involved in a less-than-transparent request for funding and extra gear. In June, the department tried to get retroactive approval to fly a surveillance-airplane system over majority black neighborhoods across the county. The technology had originally been developed to stalk car bombers and insurgents during the Iraq War, but MDPD and other big-city police departments have recently debated using the same technology on American citizens. The department was forced to abandon its spy-plane plans after New Times broke news of the measure and the public immediately reacted. Civil-rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote to MDPD and demanded they reject the idea.

This is also the second time this year that MDPD has claimed it needed to "rapidly" apply for a federal grant and have the county sign off on it retroactively.

According to a budget spreadsheet MDPD sent New Times, the new grant will pay for two license-plate-reading "speed trailers," which look like white boxes on wheels and clandestinely log drivers' license plates as they travel past. A single trailer costs $57,929. MDPD also wants ten solar-powered surveillance cameras for $6,500 each and four GPS tracking devices, which individually sell for $1,583 per unit.

In addition to tens of thousands of dollars in Simunitions, the grant will also buy MDPD 5,000 real .556 caliber bullets, along with helmets, ballistic shields, and 30 gallons of fake blood, which apparently costs $1,110 and (presumably?) is used in training exercises.

Cowart, the MDPD spokesperson, said there was one item the department kept secret from the public: the type, make, and model of the three "covert recorders" it's requesting. A single unit costs $5,775.