As heavily armed police confront protesters, data shows Fla. agencies have stockpiled an arsenal of military equipment

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Police officers in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during a protest on May 31, 2020. - John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Scenes of protests against racism and police brutality in cities across the U.S. in recent weeks have resembled war zones as heavily armed law enforcement officers and federal agents confronted civilians on urban streets.

The violent images have renewed calls by some to end a federal program that gives local police agencies access to military equipment usually meant for battlefields.

In Florida, that program has put more than $100 million in Department of Defense equipment into the hands of police over the past 25 years, according to a South Florida Sun Sentinel analysis of federal data.

Fort Lauderdale police have a mine-resistant tank. Officers in Palm Beach County have access to five battle-ready tanks. University police at Florida International University in Miami have two.

Even Tequesta, a 2-square-mile coastal village of fewer than 6,000 people in northern Palm Beach County, got a 15-ton tank from the military.

Across the country, 8,200 police departments participate in the Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 Program, which transfers unused military equipment to police. Some of the surplus is harmless — such as socks, tripods and engine parts — but the majority is heavy equipment and artillery.

In June, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged Congress to end the 1033 Program, arguing that the militarization of police has contributed to the spread of anti-government extremism and heavily armed “militias.”

But local police say the primary purpose of the equipment they receive from the surplus program is for emergency response.

A spokesman for the Tequesta police, Sgt. Emir Yildiz, said his department’s tank, which arrived eight months ago at a cost of $3,500, has never been used. “It’s a vehicle used for emergencies, as there are no mines in Tequesta.”

Yildez said the department’s tank, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected light-armor vehicle, may look like it’s only for war zones but can also plow through several feet of water — useful during hurricanes when rescuers must reach flooded areas.

But similar armored tanks have also been seen on city streets during times of unrest.

As protests continue across the country demanding justice for George Floyd and other unarmed Blacks killed by police, scenes of local officers using military equipment to confront protesters have flooded television and the internet.

In 2014, similar protests following the killing of a Black man by police in Ferguson, Missouri, turned violent and led to outrage when officers in armored vehicles and heavy military gear hurled tear gas at civilians.

In response, President Barack Obama curtailed the 1033 Program after determining that while more equipment was being sent to local police, training for its use — especially when it came to civil rights — had not been institutionalized.

“It all but killed the program,” said Al Lamberti, the former sheriff of Broward County who spent 35 years in law enforcement.

Under Lamberti’s leadership, the Broward sheriff’s office acquired military trucks and personal protection gear but not heavily armored vehicles such as tanks. He believes the actions in Ferguson maligned the program, but does not see the military hand-me-downs as the militarization of local police.

The Obama-era restrictions on the program were relaxed when Donald Trump became president — and the flow of military equipment to local police surged again. In 2019, more than $15 million worth went to Florida law enforcement. In the first three months of 2020, agencies in Florida had already spent $3 million in military equipment.

Among that equipment are the anti-mine tanks, made for soldiers in conflict zones throughout the Middle East. There are now dozens of the highly sophisticated war machines at the disposal of police in Florida. In 2014 alone, 26 tanks were bought by departments in the state, including four by the Florida Highway Patrol.

Police in nearly every Florida county have acquired military equipment through the program. Population size seems to have little influence on the amount, the data shows. Agencies in Broward County, the second-most populated of the state, spent just over $2 million since 2014, not even making the top 10 in spending.

But police departments in smaller Palm Beach County have spent twice as much as Broward, and almost $1 million more than Miami-Dade.

The growth in the program in Florida and across the country since 2016 alarmed groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said in its appeal to Congress that military equipment in the hands of police does not prevent crime or improve public safety.

“In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, millions have demonstrated globally against police brutality and systematic racism,” the group wrote. “In cities across our country, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for justice and accountability for George Floyd and the countless unarmed Black people that have been killed by law enforcement. In response to the national outrage, armored vehicles, assault weapons and military gear once again filled our streets and communities, turning them into war zones. Weapons of war have absolutely no place in our communities.”

And an analysis of crime data published in The Washington Post in 2017 concluded that there is a correlation between military equipment owned by police and civilian deaths at the hands of officers.

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©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)