MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – In Sweetwater just a few weeks ago, there were choppers in the air, armored vehicles on the ground and dozens of officers everywhere in between.
Authorities were looking for Ivan Zapata, a sexual assault suspect who attacked an officer while breaking out of custody, police said.
In the end, authorities wound up finding Zapata days later in Hialeah Gardens. The search for him, though, also revealed something unusual: The types of military equipment agencies had for this kind of situation and what they paid for it.
A Local 10 News investigation has discovered that South Florida's largest agencies are paying millions of dollars for equipment similar to what some smaller agencies are getting almost for free.
During the hunt for Zapata, for example, Sweetwater police had their own chopper in the air. The small agency landed that helicopter and three others through a military-surplus program, and only had to pay the cost to transport and refurbish them.
Sales records obtained by Local 10 show that Miami-Dade police also have four choppers, but they cost a combined $12,751,937.
"Is that worth it?" Local 10 investigative reporter Ross Palombo asked Miami-Dade Police Department Director J.D. Patterson.
"Yes," Patterson said.
Patterson believes it's worth it because the department got exactly what it paid for: A customized helicopter with a night-vision camera, high-powered spotlight and host of other features police need to do their jobs in the air.
"Costs we're concerned about," Patterson said, "but we want make sure they're safe and reliable. We don't want a helicopter that someone else has flown."
Apparently, MDPD doesn't want armored trucks that someone else has driven. The agency already had three that originally cost $695,305. At the Zapata scene, the department also rolled out another new one that cost $392,117.
Sweetwater and Coral Gables police departments, though, each have two free bullet-proof military vehicles. Even Virginia Gardens police have one. All any of them had to pay was a relatively small amount -- at most $60,000 -- to modify them.
"This vehicle costs $392,000," Palombo asked Patterson about his new vehicle. "Is it worth that much?"
"Oh yeah, if you're the one getting shot at, if you're the one whose neighborhood is at risk, yes, it's worth that much," Patterson said.
"Wow," former Broward Sheriff's Office Cmdr. Sam Frusterio said.
"Is that a lot of money?" Palombo asked.
"A lot of money and they could've saved a ton," Frusterio said.
Frusterio used to buy the same type of equipment for the Broward Sheriff's Office.
"I'm shocked at the amounts they're spending," he said.
The BSO has itself has spent nearly $7 million on choppers in the past and spent more than $600,000 on armored vehicles.
Its sheriff said, though, that the office paid for at least two armored cars with grant or donated money. BSO has also gotten four free military surplus vehicles in the past.
"Should it be the priority to go to the government first and get this more cheaply?" Palombo asked.
"Are you saying if it's for free rather than pay for it?" Sheriff Scott Israel asked. "Yes, if you can get the same product for free."
And that, many times, is precisely the argument. They say, for example, that the chemical launchers both BSO and Miami-Dade have, that sometimes cost $2,200 or $2,400 each, are not exactly the same as the free ones agencies like Sweetwater get.
Miami-Dade police even argues that its $5,136 golf cart may not be exactly the same as the free one Sweetwater got as well.
"Couldn't we get a golf cart from the government for free?" Palombo asked.
"If it were able to meet our needs, yes," Patterson said. "I'm not sure about the standards and specifics for that golf cart."
"That's excessive; what kind of golf cart is it?" Frusterio asked. "That's coming out of our taxes, and then you see BSO or any other agency going to Commission and saying we need to raise our budget."
The budget is, of course, the bottom line, especially in Miami-Dade County, where -- like expensive choppers -- layoffs have long loomed overhead.
When asked if it was possible to save money on equipment and use that to keep or hire more officers, Patterson replied, "I don't know, $392,000 would get you what? Four officers, maybe six? Or would I rather have a device like this that could save the ones I have or keep them safe? So it's never a simple answer."