Miami Police Use Orlando Shooting to Justify Rush Order for $300,000 in Military Armor

Update: The City of Miami approved Miami Police's request at today's City Commission meeting.

Earlier this year, Miami Police sent a bid request for 687 "active shooter kits," which contain multiple types of military-grade body armor, as well as two holsters apiece for AR-15 rifle ammunition. This past March 7, a police-supply company offered a quote, claiming the purchase would cost the City of Miami $295,410. But the city didn't sign off on the order right away.

At today's city commission meeting, Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes will argue that, in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando a month ago, the department now needs to quickly purchase the military equipment to keep civilians safe.

But police-reform activists say the department is using a tragedy to milk expensive equipment upgrades from the public.

"It troubles me," says Horacio Stuart Aguirre, president of the Civilian Investigative Panel, an independent city agency that investigates complaints about MPD. "I believe 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. 

On June 28, Llanes sent a letter to the city commission, claiming the upgrade was necessary to keep civilians safe in the event that an active-shooter scenario were to occur in Miami. Miami-Dade County Police also requested $6.5 million for night-vision rifles and body armor last week. 

"Due to the recent shooting in Orlando and those currently taking place internationally, the police department would like to take the proactive approach in getting the needed resources to provide critical protection to first responders in the aid and rescue of civilians threatened by an active shooter in a hot zone," Llanes wrote. He added later: "Should an officer respond to an active shooter incident, he will not only be outgunnned, but his current body armor will not protect him or her from a serious or fatal wound."

This, he says, should justify leapfrogging the city's typical bid process, effectively ordering the armor kits in a no-bid deal.

A police spokesperson declined to comment on the order.

But Aguirre says the request worries him. He says he sees it as another example of misplaced spending that will ultimately push Miami Police and the citizens they patrol farther apart.

"Maybe instead of spending $300,000 on body armament, maybe we should be spending $300,000 on psychological training for cops," he says.

Aguirre says the armor in question is similar to the armor used to crack down on protests in the wake of the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. He calls it "gladiator armor" and says it's reminiscent of the armor used in this now-famous photo from last week's protests.

"It's science-fiction body armor, gladiator armor," he says. "They were using it to arrest this 110-pound girl with the wind blowing through her silky, flowing dress."

He adds that the department already has a host of anti-terror equipment available, including two "bazooka-proof battle-wagons."

Muhammad Malik, a local community organizer who sat on a 13-person Amnesty International police-reform panel in the wake of the Ferguson riots, also criticizes the request.

"I would say, I'm disturbed by this," he says. "In the context of Orlando and the Dallas shootings, it seems like local and federal law enforcement is taking incidents of lone gunmen and manipulating them into mischaracterizing protesters and mass-movement activity as potential targets. My concern is the spillover effect of spending on these things."

He adds, "We saw it in Baton Rouge over the weekend with hundreds of protests; we saw the militarized police response. People were wearing heavy body armor, suppressing people like they were enemy combatants."

Kaan Ocbe, a recent Florida International University law school graduate, helped spearhead a movement last year to demilitarize the campus police at FIU.

"I'm really worried about it, but it's a resigned worry," he says. "It's typical of the escalation of police tactics. In the wake of some kind of mass event, they respond by ratcheting up their procedures. I know that in a decade or less, those AR-15s they use may show up at a parade they're trying to patrol."

Update: The city sent out the following release after approving the emergency order today.
After the mass shooting in Orlando, City Manager Daniel J. Alfonso authorized an emergency bid waiver for the purchase of active shooter kits that include heavy duty fire armor for the Miami Police Department. Today the City of Miami Commission unanimously approved a resolution sponsored by Commissioner Francis Suarez which retroactively approved the emergency procurement and the selection of Federal Eastern International Inc. for the provision of these kits at an initial purchase price of $295,410.00. Rather than a soft body armor vest which only protects against handgun fire, the new bulky vest is worn over the uniform and includes metal plates that are rifle ready. The vest will be kept in the officer's car and can be quickly put on in 10 seconds. 687 units have been ordered and should be received in 4 to 6 weeks.

"Based on the increase in the number of active shooter incidents in this country, it's important for our officers to have all the safety equipment they need," said Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes.

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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.