Despite Public Outcry, Miami Gives Cops 148 New Assault Rifles

City of Miami Police promise this time will be different. Standing in front of the Miami City Commission yesterday, Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes — who was caught this week fudging the truth about when he learned about destroyed murder case evidence — promised that if Miami PD were allowed to purchase 148 new Bushmaster AR-15-style rifles, the department would ensure that cops are properly trained, properly vetted, and properly punished if any officers use the military-grade rifles incorrectly.

After the city commission unanimously approved the police department's request yesterday, Miamians now must hope they can hold Llanes to his word, especially because police-reform advocates in Miami have said publicly that the rifle buy is a bad idea.

The $101,000 purchase comes at a time when concerned citizens say cops shouldn't spend any more money on military-grade equipment. Advocates fear that army-level gear encourages cops to crack down hard on peaceful demonstrators and treat civilians like enemy combatants. As of 2015, Americans were more likely to be killed by their own furniture than a terrorist attack.

"This is not a standard weapon for routine patrols," Llanes promised in front of the commission dais. He claimed that Miami PD is poorly outfitted to deal with a Pulse nightclub-style active-shooter scenario and that his officers need those rifles to "either create distance from the target if target is wearing armor" or if an active shooter is carrying significant firepower.

Llanes filed the rifle request in August, a few weeks after he cited the mass shooting in Orlando to rush-order $300,000 worth of military-grade battle armor for his cops. His rifle request was delayed, however, after commissioners asked for more time to consult civilian constituents and the city's Civilian Investigative Panel.

In August, that panel's director, Horacio Stuart Aguirre, told New Times that the ammo request "troubles" him, adding he believes "every man and woman has the right to go home alive. That includes police, but it also includes you and me, especially the not so wealthy, not so good-looking, or not so well-versed in social niceties." He worried that arming City of Miami officers to the teeth would raise the chances that cops could use their new guns on innocent civilians.

On the dais yesterday, Keon Hardemon, a commissioner who represents the predominantly black area of Overtown, among other neighborhoods, told Llanes that some of his constituents felt "terrorized" by the police, and warned him to think long and hard about how people of color in Miami will feel when they see teams of Miami cops storming a building while armed with military-grade assault rifles and armor.

"Somehow we have to come together and show our community that we don’t mean them any harm," Hardemon said. He added that the measure "isn't being passed without some serious thought."

Commissioner Francis Suarez also encouraged Llanes to pay close attention to the "culture" within the police department and to make sure cops don't think of themselves as "predators" hunting down bad guys.

In response to public comments, Llanes said he's taking extra precautions to ensure that the department's bad apples don't get their hands on weapons otherwise reserved for soldiers in the field of combat.

Cops must apply to obtain a new AR-15, he said. After doing so, officers will undergo a careful vetting process in which their internal-affairs and personnel files will be checked thoroughly for red flags. If their paperwork passes, officers will then be put through rigorous training.

Llanes promised the rifles would be used only to fight an active shooter or similar threat.

But rather than use gear such as Kevlar suits and armored trucks to battle active shooters, nationwide that equipment is more often being employed to crack down on peaceful protesters. During the controversial demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline last month, police drew criticism for clearing out peaceful, singing protesters by using gear that would otherwise be appropriate for the frontlines in Crimea.

After the Pulse shooting, departments across the nation were criticized for "exploiting public fear" to get expensive departmental upgrades. Cops absolutely have a right to their own safety and a right to defend themselves, and Llanes said yesterday the new rifles will ensure that cops will have "the right equipment on the road" in the event of a terror strike.

He promised, then, that a cop caught so much as storing his or her new rifle incorrectly would be disciplined. Let's hope he keeps his word.
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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.