Miami-Dade has a new tactic for fighting terrorism: deploying police with rifles, gas masks and riot helmets to well-traveled public places, including Metrorail stations, County Hall and courthouses.
Members of the new “Rapid Deployment Force-Counter Terrorism” can travel in an armored vehicle that’s equipped with an overhead turret and slots for firing rifles. It was parked in the public square in front of the Stephen Clark government center in downtown Miami on Monday while the County Commission was inside for an emergency meeting to approve a resolution condemning Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro.
A police spokesman said the unit is there to be noticed, with the deployment designed to remind would-be terrorists and others that Miami-Dade can respond aggressively to threats. “We’re trying to avoid someone thinking they can go out there and try something,” said Lt. Juan Villalba Jr., a spokesman for the county police department. We’re “deploying them throughout Miami-Dade County to showcase our presence and readiness should there be anybody out there that’s trying to plan some type of harm to our residents or our visitors.”
Civil-liberties advocates see the display of force as an affront to efforts at smoothing relations between police and the public.
“Utilizing weaponry that’s appropriate in war time, we think, creates a barrier and tensions between the community and the police force,” said Jeanne Baker, chair of the police-practices committee for the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We have a very well-established policy and commitment to the non-militarization of local police forces.”
Miami-Dade police on Wednesday released a draft memo outlining the program, which adds a “counter-terrorism initiative” to the unit that’s already at the ready for protests, riots and other disturbances.
“The threat of terrorism, both international and domestic, remains a major concern locally,” read the Aug. 8 memo from Edgardo Caneva, a major in the county’s Special Patrol Bureau. There’s a need for a police unit “to respond to both pre-planned and spontaneous incidents tied to or related to potential terrorist activity.”
Miami-Dade already deploys officers with military rifles to the Clark Center (also known as County Hall), Miami International Airport and to large events. A police video of the recent El Clasico soccer match at Hard Rock Stadium shows Miami-Dade officers with both riot helmets and riot shields entering the stadium, while another stands guard in front of the stadium with an assault rifle over his shoulder.
The memo, dated the day after Miami-Dade announced the launch of the program by press release, describes the rifle, helmets and other equipment as a way to “distinguish” the anti-terrorism squad during deployment. Villalba said an increasing number of officers take to the streets with the same kind of rifles, and that riot gear is standard issue for squad cars. He said the main difference for the new squad is its members will be carrying holstered gas masks.
The Monday announcement certainly anticipated the public noticing a difference between everyday police officers patrolling county facilities and members of the counter-terrorism squad. Villalba said that while the armored vehicle was parked in front of County Hall, members of the squad were sent to court facilities and Metrorail stations that day.
“Members of the community should not be alarmed and/or assume that any credible threat to Miami-Dade has been received,” the release said. “These random deployments will be ongoing and complement our efforts to thwart those that may wish to do us harm…”