Why Is the Fort Lauderdale Police Department Trying to Buy More Riot Gear? | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

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Why Is the Fort Lauderdale Police Department Trying to Buy More Riot Gear?

Fort Lauderdale can be a rowdy place. Drink too much at Cafe Martorano, and you might end up with Journey lyrics tattooed on your neck the next morning. Drink too much at Blondies, and you could potentially get put in a sleeper hold.

But while Fort Lauderdale does have a longstanding reputation as a world debauchery capital, it does not exactly have a current issue with riots, terrorism, or mass political unrest. (We found three riots in the city's history: In 1967, there were "Spring Break riots" after hungry students commandeered a bakery truck and a soda truck; in 1969, "roving bands of Negro youth" reportedly pelted cars; and police busted out riot gear in 2014 during "Urban Beach weekend." ) Yet last Friday,  the Fort Lauderdale Police Department sent out a request on an online public-bidding website, asking for a great deal on some sweet new riot gear.

Per the request, which was filed by police aide Lisa Janes, the police are looking for 100 heavy-duty "riot bags" used to carry supplies, 100 gas-mask carrying bags, 40 plastic riot shields, 50 full-face gas masks, 100 gas-mask filter cartridges, 50 CamelBak canteens along with 100 "reservoir replacements" used to hold water, 70 riot gloves, and 35 new riot helmets. You could turn most of an NFL team into a SWAT unit with that much gear.

It's unclear if the items will just replace old supplies, or how much the city will actually spend. (Before buying any gear, the city needs to put out a bidding request like this to see which company will offer the best deal.) A cursory glance at some police-supply websites shows that a single riot helmet easily sells for more than $100. Same goes for plastic riot shields, as well as a single pair of riot-control gloves. Those three items alone could cost the city more than $10,000, and the entire haul could run between $20,000 and $30,000, provided the city actually pays market price.

It's a hell of a request for a city that A) does not have a riot problem, and B) already spends $95 million a year — 30 percent of its total budget — on its police force. A study the website WalletHub released in December said that, per citizen, Fort Lauderdale spends more than any city in America on its police force, except for Washington, D.C., but manages to spend gobs without actually making its citizens much safer. The study said Fort Lauderdale had the third-worst "return-on-investment" of any police force in the country.

The Broward County Office of the Inspector General also just caught the city misusing $78,231 intended for the homeless.

Nationally, police departments have come under fire for overspending on military-grade tactical gear and under-spending on community outreach initiatives designed to keep people out of prison. In 1997, the federal government began letting local police departments buy military-grade weapons from the army. Two decades of insane local-police purchases followed: In 2014, our sister paper Miami New Times chronicled the unnecessary items some Miami-Dade departments had bought, including mine-resistant vehicles, M16 assault rifles, and at least one grenade launcher. In the wake of the 2014 Ferguson riots, President Barack Obama prohibited local cops from buying "tank-like armored vehicles that move on tracks, certain types of camouflage uniforms, bayonets, firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, grenade launchers, and weaponized aircraft."

Fort Lauderdale's nonhistory with riots notwithstanding, it's pretty clear South Florida's military-grade police units aren't functioning like they should. A 2015 New Times investigation found that in nearby Hallandale Beach, 38 SWAT raids had been conducted between 2006 and 2015 — 33 of those raids were conducted in the city's small, majority-black enclave and, though every raid was drug-related, none actually turned up drugs.

Among police-reform experts, the use of violent anti-riot units to quell unrest is known as the "Miami Model," after former Miami Police Chief John Timoney teargassed protesters and shot them with rubber bullets during the 2003 "Free Trade Area of America" negotiations.

Reached by phone, Janes, the employee who filed the request, said she wasn't authorized to speak to New Times. Two police spokespeople, Tracy Figone and Keven Dupree, were not able to explain the reasoning for the purchases as of press time. We'll update the post if we hear back from them.

After we informed local homeless-rights and civil-rights activist Dean Bairaktaris about the bid order, he posted this to the "Cop Watch Fort Lauderdale Florida" Facebook account he helps run:
Likewise, fellow homeless-rights activist (and former New Times writer) Jeff Weinberger said via phone that the department seems to be beefing itself up for no real reason. (Weinberger had previously spoken out after Fort Lauderdale police requested $140,000 for extra ammo in February.)

"I'm just curious as to what situations they anticipate arising for which they’re going to need this kind of armor," he said, adding that the money should, instead, be spent on a host of homeless-rights projects in the city, like adding public bathrooms or lockers around town. "Those would all be nice things, rather than enhancing the police state so that it looks like, I don’t know, like they’re constantly anticipating a mass riot."

Jasmen Rogers, of Broward's Black Lives Matter Alliance, provided this written statement to New Times after reviewing the bid order herself:

In 2014, in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, the world watched as the local police staged a military occupation of Ferguson, Missouri. Local police with military grade weapons were terrorizing civilians, who were mostly peaceful, with tear gas and rubber bullets, while enforcing a superfluous curfew in the name of “keeping the peace.” Shortly after, the President Obama asserted that “militarized gear can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force… it can alienate and intimidate local residents.” So why, almost two years later, is our local police force looking to purchase even more military grade equipment? What catastrophe are they preparing for that hasn’t happened in the last decade? The taxpayers of this city deserve answers.

We have come face to face with the militarized presence of the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department on several occasions. With a seemingly unprovoked, heightened security at even the city commission meetings, we wonder how many more of our liberties are we surrendering in the name of “security?” It is extremely disconcerting that they are looking to purchase even more equipment. Militarization is not a viable way to build trust between community members and police. So, how can they explain to taxpayers the need for $30,000 worth of new and improved ways to intimidate and contain this community?
Check out a copy of the city's bid request here:

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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli

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