South Florida towns prepare for unexpected with military equipment

Virginia Gardens, Sweetwater, other towns spending big bucks on commando gear

VIRGINIA GARDENS, Fla. – Sitting in one of South Florida's most quiet cities, not far from the water fountains and waving flags, is the big military commando truck that Virginia Gardens Police Department proudly owns. It's a few thousand pounds of military metal that has been converted to serve and protect approximately 2,500 people along less than 1 square mile of streets.

"Should we be surprised seeing this vehicle?" investigative reporter Ross Palombo asked Chief James Chohonis.

"I would think so, yes," Chohonis said.

The surprise may be that in a city where crime is stunningly low and where hurricane storm surges haven't hit in years, the chief said this war vehicle was brought in to battle both.

[IMAGES: South Florida police departments that take part in the Federal surplus program]

Palombo: "(Have you had) any murders in the last 10 years?"

Chohonis: "No, we have not."

Palombo: "Hostage situations?"

Chohonis: "No, we have not."

Palombo: "Any kind of standoff?"

Chohonis: "No."

Chohonis said, though, that the vehicle is there just in case.

"Transporting people, transporting officers, you know, to keep them alive. It is bulletproof," Chohonis said.

And while his city only has one, the small city of Sweetwater has two armored military vehicles, two military choppers, two choppers for parts, three scooters, two trucks, 24 military assault rifles and one military grenade launcher.

"It's for chemical agent deployment," Chief Jesus Menocal said about the grenade launchers.

"How come you're the most armored?" Palombo asked.

"Because they think in the box. I like to think outside the box," Menocal said. "I like to be prepared for if something happens."

Something, he said, like flooding. And something like criminals with their own assault rifles.

"So when is the last time you had someone shooting with an assault rifle here?" Palombo ased.

"In Sweetwater, none that I can recall," Menocal said.

That rationale is not just coming from traditional police agencies. There is also military equipment on the Florida International University campus.

"We have an MRAP and 50 rifles," Police Chief Alexander Casas said.

Police Poll

"Looks pretty intimidating, doesn't it?" Palombo asked, while looking at their MRAP, an armored mine resistant vehicle.

Casas said it's only to stem the tide of crisis campus shootings and the tide of hurricane-driven storms.

Casas: "You get the equipment that suits your environment."

Palombo: "You have 50 rifles. Does that suit this environment?"

Casas: "Absolutely."

Palombo: "Do you think it's possible that you're over-armed?"

Casas: "I don't think it's possible."

"I mean, that's absurd!" said Howard Simon, with the American Civil Liberties Union. "You can never be too prepared is license for everything."

In Ferguson, Missouri, he said military equipment was used as a license to harass and intimidate.

"We've never seen any agency down here use military equipment like that," Palombo said.

"Then why do they need it? They should return it," Simon said.

"This is an after-the-fact concocted rationale," Simon said of their reasoning to keep the equipment.

There is also an after-the-fact cost. While Virginia Gardens said it only spent $500 to get its military commando-armored vehicle, FIU said it will spend up to $10,000 to configure its MRAP. Sweetwater said it's spending more than $30,000 a year to keep their choppers in the air.

It is Coral Gables, though, that appears to be spending even more. Acting Police Chief Ed Hudak said the estimate is between $20,000 and $80,000 for their two MRAP-armored vehicles. One of them has already been repainted, wired with new lighting and wired for sound.

Palombo: "You, by far, have the nicest one."

Hudak: "Well, it is Coral Gables."

Palombo: "Is that excessive, though?"

Hudak: "No, I don't think it's excessive."

But concern over that price has prompted Hudak to put at least $60,000 for the second military vehicle on hold.

Despite the costs, every police chief Local 10 spoke to said that public safety is simply priceless.

"We have to be prepared," Hudak said.

"We plan on keeping it," Chohonis said.

"It's a duty that we have to take care of them," Casas said.

"Are you concerned with the impression that leaves when that goes rolling down the street?" Palombo ased the Virginia Gardens chief about his armored vehicle.

"No, not at all," Chohonis said. "I think it is obviously an eye-catcher."