MIAMI — As police confronted Antonio Cardoza, armed and barricaded in his home, onlookers were slack-jawed at the sight of a tank-like vehicle with turrets and sharpshooters that was stalking the neighborhood.
Twenty-feet long, weighing close to 8 tons, capable of nimble turns and hitting highway speeds, the imposing militarized machine trekked along Northeast 204th Street as negotiators tried to get Cardoza to stand down.
He didn’t, and was shot during an exchange of gunfire, then taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital where he remains in stable condition.
Two days later, the machine showed up in another residential neighborhood in Miami Gardens, less than a mile from where Cardoza was shot. This time, police spent more than six hours trying to talk Franklin Bain —wanted for false imprisonment and sexual battery —out of his home.
Cardoza was shot and Bain was tear-gassed from his home, but no officers were hurt in either incident —and that’s the point: The Miami-Dade County Police Department’s Bearcat is outfitted with enough body armour to withstand high-powered rifle shots and explosions, and carries enough weaponry to overpower most threats.
“When I saw it, I thought somebody’s gonna die,” said Amp Sheffield, 30, a neighbor of Cardoza’s who watched the confrontation unfold. “They going to war or something?”
The police department’s use of the Bearcat, however, appears to be top-secret. Though the machine is now being used by federal and local law enforcement throughout country, county cops are treating its uses with the sensitivity of a nuclear launch code.
“The information you are requesting regarding the deployment, use and criteria is information that is sensitive in nature and cannot be discussed,” said Detective Elena Hernandez.
The Bearcat, a ballistic engineered armored response counter attack-truck that looks like a Humvee on steroids, is operated by the department’s Special Response Team, and costs a cool $250,000.
The war-like vehicle also has a rotating roof hatch that can support weaponry, an almost impenetrable shell, multiple gun ports, and bullet-proof glass. At about 10-feet tall, it can fit up to 10 passengers, and comes in four- or six-wheel configurations.
Able to carry enough firepower and protective devices to take on some small third world countries, its deployment hasn’t come without controversy.
New Hampshire legislators are considering banning it after a state representative introduced a bill last month. State Rep. J.R. Hoell believes far too many local police agencies spent an abundance of Homeland Security money on unnecessary militarized vehicles.
“There’s a large potential for abuse by having equipment intent for the battlefield in the hands of police,” Hoell said. “These are not vehicles on the current market intended for civilians to use. There’s no reason for these arms to be in the hands of civilian law enforcement.”
If the militaryesque machine looks familiar, it’s because national cable news stations couldn’t get enough of the vehicles as they patrolled Boston’s streets last April while law enforcement searched for marathon bombing suspects Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
It’s hard to get an exact take on just how many local police department have bought Bearcats. The owner of Lenco Armored Vehicles, which designs and manufactures the machines, couldn’t be reached this week and nobody was permitted to speak for him.
Not always reliable Wikipedia lists about three dozen agencies that deploy the Bearcat, from Burbank Ca., to Prince George’s County, Va. The only other agency listed in Florida that uses the Bearcat is the Tallahassee Police Department.
Officer Dave Northway says his department employees the Bearcat regularly, most often during hostage negotiations, or when someone barricades himself in a home with a weapon much like Cordoza in Miami-Dade did last weekend. He said it’s also used when police are executing a search warrant.
“Most people don’t have to go to work worrying about people shooting back at them,” Northway said.
Still, at least on Northeast 204th Street, where onlookers could only gawk as the Bearcat crawled through their residential enclave, some felt the machine was a bit excessive.
“There’s nobody out there with grenades, what are they going to do with it?” said one man who only identified himself as Scullyman. “That’s kind of crazy. It had some big-ass guns.”