Police spending in South Florida has come under scrutiny this summer in the wake of George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis officers back in May.
In Miami-Dade, activists, medical students, and lawyers have fought against the county's proposal to build a new $400 million jail. In Broward, the local Black Lives Matter chapter has targeted police departments in cities as small as Coral Springs and Hallandale Beach.
But amid the calls to defund police departments and reroute the money to social services, city commissioners in Coral Gables on Tuesday voted to spend more than $1.1 million on a police "mobile command center" — essentially a giant truck that the cops say they need to establish a home base in the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or national event.
The brand-new, 42-foot-long vehicle will be big enough to include an entire conference room, additional work areas, and a kitchenette with a full-size fridge, microwave, and coffee maker.
"This is a custom-built vehicle for the Coral Gables Police Department," police chief Ed Hudak told commissioners during the virtual meeting. "This vehicle will be...for communication for any hazardous situation the city may be confronting."
The agenda item generated no further discussion and received a unanimous vote of support from commissioners.
A Central Florida company called MBF Industries won the contract to build the vehicle. The million-dollar expenditure will come from the city's forfeited-assets fund, meaning no taxpayer dollars will be used for the purchase.
State and federal laws allow police departments to seize property suspected to have been obtained through criminal activity, even if there isn't enough evidence to charge the owner with a crime. Law-enforcement agencies can then keep a portion of the value of whatever was seized, which gets dumped into a forfeited-assets fund that can be used to purchase vehicles, equipment, or other wish-list items. (Last Week Tonight With John Oliver has a good episode explaining the forfeiture process in more detail.)
Opponents of asset forfeiture have argued that the laws have accelerated the militarization of police departments across the U.S.
"These off-budget funds are a driving force behind the militarization of America's police forces, giving rise to 'warrior cops,'" wrote Nick Sibilla, an analyst for the libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, in a 2014 op-ed for Forbes.
Even if activists across the nation are successful in cutting funding for police, funds gained via asset forfeiture might be one way for departments to insulate themselves, as The Economist pointed out in a recent editorial.
"Any reform needs to take account of two facts about budgeting: that police departments have long found alternative sources of funds; and that local-government budgets need to be reformed, too," the news magazine wrote.
In the case of expensive mobile command centers, Coral Gables is far from the only city that has deemed the expenditure worthy of the cost. Last year, the Miami Police Department obtained a similar vehicle; Miami Beach has one, too. MBF Industries, the vendor chosen by Coral Gables, noted in its proposal that it has also worked on mobile command centers for the Osceola County Sheriff's Office and the Tampa Police Department.
But at least one law-enforcement agency, the Orange County Sheriff's Office in North Carolina, has held off on purchasing one of the vehicles in light of the current conversation around policing. The News & Observer in Raleigh reported in July that Sheriff Charles Blackwood instead agreed to spend the $900,000 from forfeited assets on a clinical social worker and mental-health crisis training for county employees.
Per the terms of the contract, Coral Gables can pull out of its deal with MBF for any reason, but the city would have to cover the cost of the materials already used and the work completed to that date. The mobile command center is expected to take about a year to build.
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