City of Miami Wants Armored Trucks and a Police Drone Boat to Catch Drug Traffickers

Miami would like two more Lenco BearCats, please.
Miami would like two more Lenco BearCats, please. Photo by Matti Blume / Wikimedia Commons
Police toys in South Florida keep popping up where they're not expected. More and more departments, for example, have obtained drones in recent years under the guise they'd be used for crowd control or other seemingly tame ventures — and not just to spy on petty criminals. Yet, as the Miami Herald reported last month, the Miami-Dade Police Department wound up using a drone to record a guy in his own backyard allegedly selling crack. New police technology magically has a way of being used on poor people of color.

This brings us to the nearby Miami Police Department (MPD), which is once again trying to buy some fun new toys of its own. The 2020 Florida legislative session recently began, which means state agencies are chucking funding appropriations requests at the wall in the hopes that legislators will toss them a favor. And according to state filings, MPD this year is asking lawmakers for a floating drone the department admits it wants to use to track drug dealers on the water. Separately, the Miami Fire-Rescue Department is asking for two armored military trucks. The two requests total $1.8 million in taxpayer money.

This past December 13, Miami Fire-Rescue asked state Rep. Anitere Flores for two new Lenco BearCats for Christmas. BearCats are massive armored trucks originally designed for military use in war and sometimes come with roof-mounted gun turrets. Miami-area cops already use these vehicles — in 2014, the Herald noted the Miami-Dade Police Department rolled its BearCats through Miami Gardens to intimidate some hiding suspects.

"The City of Miami would purchase two Lenco BearCats for public safety and critical emergency situations," former City Manager Emilio Gonzalez wrote in the December funding request. "The vehicles will all be deployed before, during, and after hurricanes for disaster relief. These vehicles will be assigned to the South Florida Task Force II when a state of emergency is announced in Florida as well as other neighboring states. Most recently the task force has been deployed to North Carolina for Hurricane Matthew and Mexico Beach for Hurricane Michael."

Not to be outdone, Miami Police weeks later went to state Sen. Manny Diaz Jr. with a request dated January 6 to as for a HYCAT autonomous surface vehicle (which costs a cool $229,500), along with 15 petroleum-sending buoys ($825,500) and 38 security cameras ($114,000) to boot.

"The requested funds will allow the Miami Police Department to purchase an autonomous vessel with advanced side-scan sonar, pollution sensors, and surveillance cameras for deployment along Miami's waterways," MPD's request reads. "The Miami Marine Patrol will receive automated alerts from this sensor network to begin rapid responses to a host of issues along the waterways, including pollution, vessel movement violations, and contraband trafficking. Water quality data will be made available to researchers."

According to online literature, the HYCAT (an acronym for "Huntington Y Charleston Aquatic Team") can map huge bodies of water in very short periods of time — the little device has powerful sonar and can detect all sorts of pollution and other chemicals floating in the water:
So how does Miami justify spending this much taxpayer money for a drone boat? In the request, the city claims the system will help gauge water quality, but MPD also says its cops will use the doohickey to track contraband chucked off boats and to issue more speeding tickets. In lieu of spending that million-plus dollars on, say, new affordable housing or healthcare for the poor, we instead welcome our new robot overlords.

Update, February 4: This story has been updated to reflect that Miami Fire-Rescue, not Miami Police, requested the purchase of two BearCats.
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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.