In the two years since the Ferguson riots, local police departments have come under fire for buying needless military equipment and using it to crack down on peaceful protesters. Departments, including many in Miami-Dade County, have been lambasted for wasting tax dollars on surplus grenade launchers and armored trucks they never really needed.
One avenue that hasn't been scrutinized as often: free armored truck trades among friends.
Apparently, the Coral Gables Police Department, which patrols one of the safest and wealthiest areas in Miami-Dade, has two mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicles. (They're known in the military world as "MRAPs.") Said vehicles are able to drive over mines and improvised explosives without blowing to bits, can withstand heavy gunfire, and typically have a perch at the top for snipers and cops holding long rifles.
Not surprisingly, Gables PD says it no longer needs two of these things. (The city had to pay only "transportation and/or shipping costs," according to the U.S. Department of Defense; federal taxpayers shouldered the rest.) In fact, according to city documents, one of the trucks has only 20 miles on the odometer. But rather than sell that vehicle for scrap, the department is instead giving it to Miami Beach Police because that department doesn't have any MRAPs.
Miami Beach Police claim they need the truck for two very different reasons. One, they need a truck so they can drive through flooded areas. And two, they need it in the event of a mass shooting. In a memo sent to the Miami Beach City Commission, City Manager Jimmy Morales referenced the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, where an armed gunman killed 49 patrons at an LGBTQ bar, as an excuse to bulk up.
"In the Pulse nightclub attack, the SWAT team was able to use its SWAT vehicle to breach the premises to confront the attacker and to eliminate the threat," he said. He added later: "The Miami Beach Police Department (MBPD) does not currently have the capability highlighted above. Presently, the MBPD would need to rely on either the City of Miami Police Department or the Miami-Dade Police Department to take on the task of driving into a flooded area or high-threat zone. The MBPD estimates that it would take an hour or more to deploy such a vehicle from the mainland."
The Miami Beach City Commission will vote on whether to accept the hand-me-down MRAP at its meeting today.
But the request marks the third time this summer that a Miami-Dade police department has used the Pulse shooting to justify stocking up on military-grade gear. In July following the attack, City of Miami Police rush-ordered $300,000 worth of body armor. They then followed it up by asking for $100,000 in AR-15 assault rifles last week.
If Miami Beach were to buy a new MRAP, Morales says, it would run the city between $500,000 and $1 million.
Instead, he added, the "Coral Gables Police Department previously received two (2) MRAP Personnel Transport Vehicles through the Defense Logistics Agency 1033 program and has graciously offered to donate one of them to the MBPD."
Asked when MBPD would need a mine-resistant truck, police spokesperson Ernesto Rodriguez told New Times he could not comment further than what was written in Morales' memo.
But although Miami Beach says it will use the vehicle according to the "best practices" in modern policing, departments have a long history of stocking up on these trucks and then using them to intimidate peaceful protesters and nonviolent drug criminals.
In 2007, when American soldiers in Iraq were losing their lives to improvised bombs, the Army and Marine Corps committed to buying 6,800 new MRAPs in a single year. Since then, the vehicles have shown up in greater numbers in police departments across the United States — often in situations where they weren't needed. Last year, Mother Jones, which called the MRAP "the most iconic piece of equipment in the debate
Startlingly, Mother Jones found that, while departments publicly said they wanted military gear to protect their hometowns from terrorism, the vast majority of departments actually just used the gear to hunt down drug criminals.
"This is a great example of how police as an institution talk to each other privately, versus how they talk to the public and journalists who might raise questions about what they're doing with this equipment," Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and expert on police spending, told the magazine. "When police are pressured in public, they're going to say, 'How about Columbine?' or point to all these extremely rare circumstances."
But while scores of activists have reported feeling intimidated in the presence of armored trucks and cops, most police just say they want the armor to keep themselves safe from criminals who might shoot at their cars.
The public has generally not bought that argument. In June 2014, the sheriff of Bergen County, New Jersey, requested two MRAPs. But County Executive Kathleen Donovan, a Republican, rebuked him.
"Thank God we don't have mines on the streets of Bergen County, and so why do we need an MRAP?" she asked. "It's not a rescue vehicle, as portrayed by some. It's the wrong message to send to all of our communities, and we're a very diverse county. There's just no reason for it, and nobody can figure out why we should have it."
Closer to home, protesters say Miami-Dade Police used a military-grade weapon to intimidate them just last month. When a group of 100 people showed up at County Hall in August to stage a peaceful sit-in over the county's campaign-finance laws, the protesters — many of them middle-aged or older — were greeted by an MDPD cop with a military-grade assault rifle. The officer had been stationed there to provide a "visible police presence" in the building.
Update: Miami Beach Fraternal Order of Police President Bobby Jenkins provided the following statement to New Times:
The Miami Beach FOP is appreciative of the City’s willingness to recognize the fact that there may be a time when a vehicle such as this may be necessary to save lives. While we do not expect this vehicle to be used for routine calls for service, we also understand that we are living in different times that sometimes require us to consider different courses of action. These tools give us the ability to respond to crisis scenarios, such as an active shooter or an environmental disaster, in the safest and most expeditious manner possible. When the lives of citizens and officers are at stake, the old adage of 'better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it' comes to mind. The men and women of the Miami Beach FOP are dedicated to protecting the lives and property of all who come within our jurisdiction in a safe, friendly and constitutional manner.