Miami-Dade County

South Florida cities can roll out Ferguson-like arsenals

When an armed 26-year-old Miami Gardens man barricaded himself in his home last spring, county police dispatched an armored personnel carrier, called a “BearCat,” equipped with a grenade-proof shield, a gun turret designed for a 50-caliber machine gun, and enough interior space for a dozen officers.

“They going to war or something?” a neighbor remarked at the show of force.

Records show police agencies in Miami-Dade also have four “mine resistant vehicles,” five grenade launchers and 242 assault rifles at their disposal. The police department in Tallahassee, the state capital and home to Florida State University, has its own BearCat, as does Virginia Gardens, a microscopic hamlet adjacent to Miami International Airport with a population of fewer than 2,500.

Police acquired these arsenals largely through a federal initiative called the 1033 Program. It is designed to allow law enforcement agencies to arm themselves with SWAT or assault-type equipment that the military no longer needs.

The program drew harsh criticism this week as police rolled out tank-like vehicles and other military-style hardware in a face-off with angry citizens in Ferguson, Missouri. Many are questioning whether displaying such weaponry might be viewed as a provocation.

From the Panhandle to the Keys, Florida is bristling with military equipment. Alachua County, the University of Florida’s home in the gently rolling hills of North Florida, has an armored truck, a “mine resistant vehicle,” about a dozen night vision goggles and three helicopters. Osceola County, where Mickey Mouse lives, has two grenade launchers and two armored personnel carriers.

Bay County, which includes the spring break destination Panama City Beach, has a “combat/assault/tactical wheeled vehicle,” and three helicopters. Even NASA keeps what it calls “big boy toys” at the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida.

And though he did not specify the military gear his city has acquired, Mayor Tomas Regalado is confident the Miami Police Department can withstand whatever havoc criminals, terrorists or drug cartels can wreak.

“They are equipped to go to war,” Regalado told the Miami Herald this week, speaking of his police department.

The 1033 program remained largely under the radar until it went on full display in the St. Louis suburb, where residents took to the streets after the shooting of an unarmed, 18-year-old black male by a white police officer.

The death of Michael Brown, which remains under investigation by both local police and the U.S. Justice Department, sparked both peaceful and sometimes violent demonstrations in the predominantly black city.

Though the conversation across the United States has centered largely on the issue of race, the turmoil has prompted much introspection on the question of whether it is healthy to deploy weapons meant for the battlefield in American communities.

“Some of that equipment is absolutely necessary,” said James Sewell, a 32-year lawman who spent 17 years at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, rising to the rank of assistant commissioner before retiring. Sewell said an armored personnel carrier possibly could have saved the lives of two St. Petersburg police officers on Jan. 24, 2011, when they clashed with 39-year-old Hydra Lacy, whose rap sheet included arrests for attempted murder, kidnapping and rape.

The two officers and a deputy U.S. Marshall with a fugitive warrant went looking for Lacy. When the confrontation got ugly, Sewell said, officers had only a dump truck to shield themselves from a fusillade of bullets. The police officers were killed and the deputy Marshall was wounded.

And yet, Sewell said, armored carriers, which many civilians see as tanks — along with the fatigues and the assault rifles — can engender an attitude among officers that the citizens they are sworn to protect also are the enemy. “It’s not just the equipment; it’s the attitude,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union agreed.

“Neighborhoods are not war zones, and our police officers should not be treating us like wartime enemies,” the ACLU wrote in a June report.

Much, though not all, of the military-style equipment finding its way into local police forces originates with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency, through a program called the Law Enforcement Support Office, or LESO.

LESO’s motto: “From Warfighter to Crimefighter.”

Since 1997, the agency has moved about $4.3 billion in surplus military equipment to the states, a LESO report said.

The Ferguson Police Department was given two Humvees by the Defense Department, a Pentagon spokesman said. St. Louis County, as a whole, acquired “six pistols, 12 rifles, 15 weapon sites, an EOD robot, three helicopters, seven Humvees … and two night-vision devices,” the spokesman said.

The weapons transfers began around 1991 under 1033, envisioned as an anti-drug effort. Its purpose was to enable local cops to match the firepower of drug cartels. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, weapons transfers took on new urgency as local police confronted a new, more sinister, enemy: international terrorists. Much of the equipment landed in local police departments’ SWAT teams, where it’s now routinely used in the execution of search warrants and hostage rescues.

A listing of military-style gear obtained from the LESO program that appeared this week on the New York Times’ website shows that police agencies in Florida’s capital, Leon County, have two “mine resistant” vehicles, three helicopters and 1,934 assault rifles.

A Tallahassee Police Department spokesman, officer Dave Northway, said the carrier has proven to be quite useful to the department. It’s been used as a bullet-proof shield in hostage rescues, as a megaphone and staging area during heated hostage negotiations, and as a personnel carrier during SWAT deployments. Northway himself has sat inside it while speaking with a hostage taker, and said it offers a sense of quiet and security that can help defuse dangerous situations.

“If you are trying to speak with someone, you cannot worry about your safety,” Northway said.

At times, the military surplus program works like family hand-me-downs, with bigger, more established agencies sending their castoffs to their little brothers. After several months on a waiting list, Virginia Gardens received its own BearCat armored carrier when a neighboring department obtained a newer model.

“This thing is pretty old,” said Police Chief James Chohonis, a 28-year veteran of the department. “It’s probably from the Vietnam War.”

Why would tiny Virginia Gardens need a BearCat? Chohonis, who has been chief for the last decade, said, first and foremost, the carrier could be useful in the rescue of citizens following, say, a serious hurricane.

“We have storms where people get trapped and need to get evacuated, particularly the elderly,” Chohonis said.

The vehicle also can be used by SWAT officers, and Virginia Gardens will coordinate with neighboring departments to do training exercises. “We will assist them with anything they need,” Chohonis said.

Chohonis doesn’t want anyone to think his small department is gearing up for war. He said Virginia Gardens embraces the ideals of community policing.

But the chief doesn’t want to minimize the threat his officers face. Officers must be prepared to meet the weapons, cunning and sophistication of violent drug gangs that arm themselves with assault weapons, and train daily on realistic video games that teach members how to shoot, he said.

“Basically,” Chohonis said, “we are keeping up with the threat level that is out there.”

At a press briefing Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department would remain Switzerland — neutral — on the question of how its retired military gear was being used by local police forces. “That,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, “is up to local law enforcement to determine.” He added that the Pentagon had “rigorous compliance and accountability standards.”

Miami Herald staff writers Charles Rabin and Rick Hirsch contributed to this report.