As police confronted Antonio Cardoza, armed and barricaded in his home, onlookers were slack-jawed at the sight of a tank-like vehicle with turrets and sharpshooters that was stalking the neighborhood.
Twenty feet long, weighing close to eight tons, capable of nimble turns and hitting highway speeds, the imposing militarized machine trekked along Northeast 204th Street as negotiators tried to get Cardoza to stand down.
He didn’t, and was shot during an exchange of gunfire, then taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital where he remains in stable condition.
Two days later, the machine showed up in another residential neighborhood in Miami Gardens, less than a mile from where Cardoza was shot. This time, police spent more than six hours trying to talk Franklin Bain — wanted for false imprisonment and sexual battery — out of his home.
Cardoza was shot and Bain was tear-gassed from his home, but no officers were hurt in either incident —and that’s the point: The Miami-Dade County Police Department’s Bearcat is outfitted with enough body armor to withstand high-powered rifle shots and explosions, and carries enough weaponry to overpower most threats.
“When I saw it, I thought somebody’s gonna die,” said Amp Sheffield, 30, a neighbor of Cardoza’s who watched the confrontation unfold. “They going to war or something?”
The police department’s use of the Bearcat, at first, appeared to be top secret. Though the machine is now being used by federal and local law enforcement throughout country, county cops treated its uses with the sensitivity of a nuclear launch code.
“The information you are requesting regarding the deployment, use and criteria is information that is sensitive in nature and cannot be discussed,” Detective Elena Hernandez said.
Later, after several requests for information, county police owned up to having purchased three of the machines, two SuperBear Coms and a Bearcat.
“This vehicle not only assists tactical personnel during their deployment around a structure, but it also can be utilized to effect victim rescues where an individual may be pinned down as a result of rifle or handgun fire,” said Jorge Herrera, a lieutenant with the department’s Special Response Team.
The Bearcat, a ballistic engineered armored response counterattack truck that looks like a Humvee on steroids, is operated by SRT, and costs a cool $250,000.
The war-like vehicle also has a rotating roof hatch that can support weaponry, an almost impenetrable shell, multiple gun ports, and bullet-proof glass. At about 10 feet tall, it can fit up to 10 passengers, and comes in four- or six-wheel configurations.
Its deployment hasn’t come without controversy.
New Hampshire legislators are considering banning it after a state representative introduced a bill last month. State Rep. J.R. Hoell believes far too many local police agencies spent an abundance of Homeland Security money on unnecessary militarized vehicles.
“There’s a large potential for abuse by having equipment intent for the battlefield in the hands of police,” Hoell said. “These are not vehicles on the current market intended for civilians to use. There’s no reason for these arms to be in the hands of civilian law enforcement.”
If the militaryesque machine looks familiar, it’s because national cable news stations couldn’t get enough of the vehicles as they patrolled Boston’s streets last April while law enforcement searched for marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
It’s hard to get an exact take on how many local police departments have bought Bearcats. The owner of Lenco Armored Vehicles, which designs and manufactures the machines, couldn’t be reached this week and nobody was permitted to speak for him.
According to Lenco’s website, about three dozen agencies use the Bearcat, including New York City and Los Angeles. The only other agency listed in Florida that uses the Bearcat is the Tallahassee Police Department.
Officer Dave Northway says his department employs the Bearcat regularly, most often during hostage negotiations, or when someone barricades himself in a home with a weapon much like Cardoza in Miami-Dade did last weekend. He said it’s also used when police are executing a search warrant.
“Most people don’t have to go to work worrying about people shooting back at them,” Northway said.
Still, at least on Northeast 204th Street, where onlookers could only gawk as the Bearcat crawled through their residential enclave, some felt the machine was a bit excessive.
“There’s nobody out there with grenades, what are they going to do with it?” said one man who only identified himself as Scullyman. “That’s kind of crazy. It had some big-ass guns.”