Tampa accepts $50 million federal grant for RNC security and with it, an armored truck

01/05/12 Janelle Irwin
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The city of Tampa is getting $50 million in federal funds to pay for security for the Republican National Convention in August. City council voted unanimously today to appropriate some of those funds to tactical equipment including an armored SWAT vehicle.

“I know that this is somewhat of a trend for police forces to start having military equipment, but that’s a lot of money being spent on an armored vehicle.”

Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern said she’s troubled that the city is shelling out almost $300 thousand from the federal funds on an armored SWAT truck.

"I know that this planning for the RNC has just been worst case scenario you have to look at. It's the thought - the use of those in the kind of situations you're talking about makes a lot of sense - but to see those as a crowd control, it's kind of chilling."

"Well, they're not used for crowd control."

"How are we going to see them then? Are we only going to see them if there's some really serious violence."

"We don't patrol the streets with our armored vehicles. They're only utilized in situations where the SWAT team is deployed."

Assistant police Chief Marc Hamlin says the city plans to borrow a dozen more from neighboring agencies during the RNC. He said the department already has two, but they are so old mechanics can’t even get parts for them anymore. Council member Mike Suarez said most of the items TPD planned to purchase would make people feel safe, but not this one.

“An armored vehicle – if it’s a military vehicle – sends a different message. It is an offensive weapon verses a piece of equipment that is used for defense for our police forces.”

Another $300,000 is being awarded to Tampa Police to purchase items intended to help them respond to what the grant calls threats to national security. Almost half of that money is set to be spent on two robots. Assistant police Chief Hamlin predicts there will be 70,000 visitors in downtown for the convention. He said the federal grant money may not even be enough to cover the security costs associated with hosting such a large event.

“We originally sketched a $55 million budget, but we were only appropriated $50 million so we had to scale down from that. And like I said, a lot of the personnel costs – those personnel costs can only be predicted. They cannot be actual because we don’t know what’s going to happen during the convention.”

Council member Mary Mulhern suggested that of all that money, some should be set aside for people without homes.

“We heard and have been pressured and then passed the panhandling ban and we’ve talked so much about arrest diversion and about homeless shelters and homeless services. I was wondering if there is anyway that we could access some of this grant money for the safety of our homeless community.”

Assistant Police Chief Hamlin said he would look into it, but doesn’t think the grant’s provisions would allow funding for homeless shelters.

“All of this $50 million federal grant is specifically for security for the Republican National Convention. All of the purchases will be monitored through the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Administration. Every purchase we make, we will have to get permission from them and in the long-term, at the end, they will audit us and make sure we spent the money appropriately.”

Despite Mulhern’s suggestions, council members voted unanimously to accept the $50 million and the plans to spend it. One Occupy Tampa member, Joe Jay, said he’s disappointed in the city’s plans to spend money that could be better used elsewhere.

“To sweep problems like homelessness under the rug, literally, to just hide the problem without addressing it. And I think councilwoman Mulhern had an excellent point. If the RNC was one of the impetuses to pass the panhandling ban then out of $50 million, we could at least do something to address the problem.”

Jay said he understands there will be a substantial cost associated with RNC security, but to spend money on things like armored vehicles is an abuse.

“I just think it’s shameful that the RNC is being used as an excuse, especially in a time of austerity, to expand the police state even further.”

Jay called the RNC “Christmas for police agencies” and he might be right. City Council also approved $27,000 of night vision goggles and a $1.1 million digital downlink system for video from police helicopters. Though the city will be spending millions to beef up its equipment room, Hamlin said more than half of the federal grant will be spent on staffing related expenses.

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