Florida State Guard Could Triple In Size, Gain Military Police-Like Arm

Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix

An expansion of the Florida State Guard, created last year to supplement the Florida National Guard, which suffers from low capacity and is subject to being nationalized and sent away to foreign conflicts, would include a “specialized unit” with power to arrest civilians if deployed by the governor.

During a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Republican from Dade County, described the unit as “sort of an M.P. law enforcement-type of entity.” M.P. stands for military police.

“Certainly, in times of natural disaster where you need to stabilize the situation, you need to have a force to augment, you know, any type of local capabilities, whether it’s the sheriff’s office or police department,” he said when Democrats asked him what the unit would do.

Avila didn’t directly answer whether the governor could use the guard to, say, enforce election or immigration laws. Florida already has an election-fraud police unit that arrested 20 people last year for allegedly voting while felons but so far those prosecutions have not been terribly successful.

“There may be other instances, right, apart from a natural disaster, right, where they may need to augment those local and state agencies in terms of providing a presence — not only a presence but stabilizing the situation,” Avila said.

Democrats didn’t object to expanding the Florida State Guard.

“I support what this is. I do. I think this is important. I understand it,” said Lauren Book of Broward County, the top Democrat in the Senate.

But she bemoaned the lack of “guardrails” around a governor who has deployed the state’s resources against his political enemies, including The Walt Disney Co.

“We’re going to put a prison next to Disney World? We’re going to occupy Epcot?” Book said. DeSantis had openly mused about that first prospect.

“That’s the sort of thing that’s coming out of this [executive] branch right now. And giving that kind of power to somebody so power hungry that exists currently? I believe it’s dangerous,” she said.

Chain of command

“I’m actually going to vote for it because I don’t think the next person is going to abuse it with toy soldiers — and that’s absolutely the position we’re in,” Democrat Jason Pizzo said during debate.

“I would be more comfortable if we had very bright-line, clear chain of command,” he added.

“There is no clear chain of command in this state because everything seems to be beholden, in this building and outside, to the whims and wishes of the governor. That’s not healthy, not in a democracy.”

In the end, Pizzo did vote no on the bill (HB 1285), which passed the committee 13-6. The next stop is the Senate floor and next, presumably, the governor’s desk.

Bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Republican from Dade County, argued that governors command state guards in another 22 states without controversy. “Florida is reviving the state guard because of the need and the shortage that we currently have with the Florida National Guard. That is the absolute bottom line here,” he said.

The Legislature voted last year to revive the Florida State Guard, the history of which dates to 1941, when Congress allowed states to create local military forces to replace National Guard units mobilized for World War II. The state guard was deactivated after the war ended but its authorization remained on the books.

DeSantis, in calling for the guard’s creation, lamented that the federal government hasn’t authorized an increase in numbers for the Florida National Guard in decades. With 12,000 soldiers and airmen serving nearly 23 million Floridians, it ranks No. 53 out of 54 states and territories, Avila said.

House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed to spend $107.6 million to expand the force to 1,500 positions, Avila said. Meanwhile, the state guard is still screening candidates for the 400 positions authorized so far.

“The Florida State Guard is created to protect and defend the people of Florida from all threats to public safety and to augment all existing state and local agencies, detect, and apprehend while activated,” the bill says.

The force will be housed within the Florida Department of Military Affairs which oversees the National Guard, but will be administratively independent. There will be a director, but the governor will be commander in chief.

Disaster response

The force will mostly concentrate on disaster response, Avila said, noting that the Florida National Guard deployed for a year and a half during the COVID pandemic. The governor could deploy the force to assist other states during natural disasters, but they couldn’t be called up by the president, as the Florida National Guard can be.

But the bill also envisions a “specialized unit” with “the same law enforcement authority as the law enforcement agency in conjunction with which they are working when activated,” the bill says.

“Certainly, in times of natural disaster where you need to stabilize the situation, you need to have a force to augment, you know, any type of local capabilities, whether it’s the sheriff’s office or police department,” he said.

Avila didn’t directly answer whether the governor could use the guard to, say, enforce election or immigration laws. Florida already has an election-fraud police unit that arrested 20 people last year for allegedly voting while felons but so far those prosecutions have not been terribly successful.

“There may be other instances, right, apart from a natural disaster, right, where they may need to augment those local and state agencies in terms of providing a presence — not only a presence but stabilizing the situation,” Avila said.

Checks and balances

He also left it unclear how the force would rank among other police agencies during responses, relative to the local sheriff or police chief or Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It would “work in conjunction” with those authorities, he said.

“Are you concerned at with the lack of checks and balances when creating in essence what’s a new form of small military in Florida?” Book asked Avila.

“This is more of bringing it more in line with what our present needs and challenges are,” he replied, arguing that he expects a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region “probably within the next five years,” not to mention trouble spots including Ukraine, the Middle East, and Africa. Those could pull in Florida National Guard units, Avila said.

“You’re going to need a force to augment when those forces are asked to either mobilize or deploy to another part of the world.”

“They are directly under the governor, and they will not be deployed so we can count on having these individuals here to help with the many natural disasters that we experience,” said Republican Gayle Harrell, representing Martin and parts of St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

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