On Monday afternoon, some alarming headlines came from the national publications like the Washington Post and USA Today. According to the reports, the U.S. Department of Justice was sending a “riot team” to quell protests and related unrest in only two major American cities: the District of Columbia and Miami.
With the news, a question hung in the air. Why Miami?
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The answer is still shrouded in mystery, but the way the announcement was carried out has confused officials across different levels of government. Several law enforcement sources at both local and federal levels only learned about the team’s presence in Miami after reporters pointed them to statements from the Trump Administration.
Ultimately, the federal team is leaving Miami without being deployed.
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which falls under the umbrella of the DOJ, told WLRN in an email that it had sent a team to Miami at the “request” of Attorney General William Barr. The team consisted of units that “are highly trained tactical units capable of responding to prison disturbances,” and were available to provide “assistance to other law enforcement agencies,” said spokesperson Nancy Ayers.
The widespread protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sparked states of emergency across the county, on top of existing COVID-19 emergencies. Both Miami-Dade and Broward counties have instituted mandatory curfews.
A Saturday protest in downtown Miami was largely peaceful until it briefly broke out into a more tumultuous scene, with protesters and police pointing the finger at one another about who was to blame. Four police cars were set on fire and a small handful of stores were looted at Bayside Marketplace. On Sunday, a planned protest proceeded largely without incident.
Once Monday rolled around, the City of Miami was ready to lift the curfew that had been in place for two nights. Another planned protest went off without any unrest, violence or arrests, in contrast to other cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Monday that he had heard nothing about the "riot team" from the federal government. By Tuesday he had received more information.
“I was unaware that they were here. When asked, we said that we didn’t really need them,” he said in a Miami-Dade Commission meeting, after the federal presence became a topic of conversation and confusion. “They’re here but we didn’t ask them to be here. They don’t need to be here,” said Gimenez. “There are other cities that need them a heck of a lot more than we do.”
Likewise, the City of Miami Police Department had not received any information about the federal riot team’s presence in the city.
The order came down from the top of the Department of Justice. But no one alerted local officials beforehand.
“The BOP sent down a small contingent to secure federal assets in South Florida, mainly the federal courthouses here in Miami and Fort Lauderdale,” said Manny Puri, the Assistant Chief Deputy Marshal for the U.S. Marshal Service for the Southern District of Florida. “After consulting with local departments it became clear that local agencies had it under control and that there were other areas of the country that could better use those resources.”
“Attorney General [Bill] Barr has decided those teams would be better utilized in other areas of the country,” said Puri. The “riot team” was never deployed in South Florida, even after team members were put up in a downtown Miami hotel.
"I want to thank the federal government for improving our economy," joked Mayor Gimenez. Hotel taxes have taken a steep dive since COVID-19 hit in March.
On Sunday, a peaceful protest marched through downtown Miami. Police cleared roads as demonstrators walked. At one point the march stopped in front of a federal detention center, where U.S. Marshals work. Inmates could be seen banging on windows in support of the demonstration, and shining mirrors down to the scene below.
“We were there for that, the team was not here,” said Chief Puri.
Puri said he had no information about why, of all places, the federal team was sent to Miami.
The confusion about the federal force’s presence comes as President Donald Trump has threatened to deploy the U.S. military to quell unrest if mayors and governors don’t crack down on protests, likening demonstrations and looting in some major cities as “domestic terrorism.” He cited his authority under an 1807 law that would allow him to circumvent a ban on using troops for domestic law enforcement.
The National Guard has already been deployed in at least 23 states. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the National Guard to temporarily step away from missions related to COVID-19 to respond to protests in Tampa.
But protests in Florida have largely been peaceful, DeSantis noted in a statement.
“I appreciate all the hard work being done by our local officials, the Florida National Guard, the Florida Highway Patrol and our law enforcement to help ensure the safety of residents and visitors, as well as those who are engaging in peaceful First Amendment activity,” Governor Ron DeSantis said in a statement on Tuesday. “Over the past 24 hours, demonstrations have remained largely peaceful thanks to these collaborative efforts.”