IOWA CITY — Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek is defending the county’s recent acquisition of a mine-resistant vehicle amid nationwide calls to “demilitarize” local law enforcement.
“It’s a tool in the toolbox,” Pulkrabek said. “It’s not like we’re getting a tank, it’s not like we’re getting a battleship.”
The county received the “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicle, or MRAP, in June through a federal program, which gives surplus military equipment to local police forces at little to no cost. Pulkrabek said the primary role of the nearly 60 thousand pound vehicle is to protect officers during an active shooter situation, but it can also be used to help during natural disasters, like when it was used to assist with evacuations during the recent flooding on the Iowa River, the sheriff said.
A heavily armed police response to the recent protests of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, have shined a new light on the issue. Even President Barack Obama weighed in on such surplus programs in remarks delivered on Monday.
“There is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions,” Obama said during a news conference Monday. “And I think that there will be some bipartisan interest in reexamining some of those programs.”
Last week about 30 people attended a protest in Iowa City that criticized the police response to demonstrations in Ferguson. Another protest, in part about the militarization of police forces, is planned for Thursday night on the Ped Mall. The rally, titled “Rally for the End of Police Brutality,” is slated to start at 6:30.
On Monday, August 25, a group plans to meet at the Iowa City Public Library to discuss “police accountability and demilitarizing our communities police force.”
Next week the Johnson County Board of Supervisors may also call on the sheriff and emergency manager to answer questions about the MRAP acquisition, according to supervisor Janelle Rettig.
“No one has given enough justification to me for it,” Rettig said. “If it doesn’t end up on the agenda, I’m going to bring it up anyway.”
Pulkrabek said sending the vehicle back would require intervention and recommendations from local city managers, police departments and Johnson County emergency management officials.