When does a State Guard turn into a personal army? With DeSantis, Florida may find out | Opinion

·4 min read
MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com

Gee, just what Florida needs: a bloated, expensive State Guard with boats, planes and helicopters, possible cell-phone hacking powers, the ability to arrest and carry arms and a $10 million headquarters, all in a force that can be called up only by the governor.

That’s the latest proposal coming out of Tallahassee in a session where lawmakers never seem to reach rock bottom in their scraping obeisance to Gov. DeSantis.

They call it a civilian defense force, but this is a personal army in everything but name, a scary proposition in a state that is already using governmental power to squelch dissent and target vulnerable groups. Voters across the country should take serious note if they’re considering the Florida governor as their potential standard bearer in the 2024 presidential election.

But what is our excuse in South Florida? Many here have experience with strongman-style governments in other countries and have seen first-hand what this sort of dangerous concentration of power in a single person can do. We, who should know better, seem blind to the threat.

The proposal to expand the State Guard, after DeSantis brought it back last year in a much more modest way, is excessive in the extreme. Why go from 400 members to 1,500? Or increase the budget to almost $100 million? Why do we need a $750,000 contract with the Israeli company Cellebrite to create a new “Digital Forensic Center of Excellence” to go after human trafficking and drug and child exploitation crimes? Don’t forget the other stuff we would all be paying for if House Bill 1285 gets approved: six boats and tow vehicles, $49.5 million for planes and helicopters and, this one takes the cake, $22.7 million just to store those vehicles.

Under the bill, the scope of the guard would also be expanded — not just for emergencies but also to “protect and defend the people of Florida from threats to public safety.”

Why do we need any of this? Just last month, DeSantis made a claim that would seem to run counter to the whole idea. He bragged during a visit to New York that “our crime rate is at a 50-year low.” Subsequent reporting showed that his claim was muddied — a lot — by the fact that national data collection on crime run by the FBI was moving to a new method of collection right before the pandemic, so numbers from one year to the next couldn’t be considered comparable. There were other complications: DeSantis was using “major crime” as a measure, and comparing one city (New York City) to a whole state.

There’s a lot more to that discussion, but let’s just say he’s right. Why, if crime is at a half-century low, do we need this big expansion of a state-run police arm?

In DeSantis’ original pitch to bring back the Florida Guard, he said the 400 members would supplement the state’s overworked Florida National Guard. That was only last year.

What has changed so dramatically since then to require all the shiny new hardware and vastly expanded police presence? Yes, there have been migrant surges, but even at their height earlier this year, Florida was far from being overwhelmed.

We still have police forces in cities and counties. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is still operational. The National Guard still exists, as does the U.S. Coast Guard. We even have the governor’s much vaunted elections police, who have used their mighty power to crack down on something like 20 people, with a number of the charges eventually dropped.

No, the one thing that has really changed in all of this is that DeSantis is planning to run for president. He’s trying to out law-and-order Donald Trump. And Florida is his personal lab experiment.

Legislators, of course, should provide a check on the overweening ambitions of this governor. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. But they won’t. Do they have any limits, any line they won’t let the governor cross? It doesn’t look like it. In the end, it may be up to voters across the country to say, as they did with Trump: Enough.