116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office will request $240,000 for a Lenco BearCat armored vehicle — despite objections from protesters and some elected officials that civilian police forces shouldn’t deploy military-style vehicles — in its upcoming fiscal year budget.
Sheriff Brad Kunkel presented an $810,841 decision package, which also includes money to replace aging camera equipment, to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors during a work session Monday morning. The board has been holding work sessions for county departments to present fiscal 2023 budget requests ahead of the first vote, which is slated for Jan. 12.
Less than a third of the new funds requested are for the purchase of a Lenco BearCat G2. The BearCat would replace the county’s Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle — or MRAP — which was acquired by the Sheriff’s Office in 2014 for free through a federal program disposing of obsolete or unneeded military equipment. Since arriving in Johnson County, the MRAP has been used in 19 documented deployments, according to a presentation to the supervisors earlier this year.
Supervisors have previously discussed use of the MRAP and possible alternatives, such as the smaller BearCat. Kunkel told the supervisors in August he would not negotiate the need of an armored vehicle, but said he would get rid of the MRAP if the BearCat was purchased.
During a public comment period Monday, all 18 speakers said they were opposed to the Sheriff’s Office owning an armored vehicle — saying such a vehicle is unnecessary, intimidating and will not improve public safety. A petition requesting the county get rid of the MRAP and not purchase a BearCat has received nearly 500 signatures as of Monday morning.
“I think this purchase is just a really poor, poor decision,” said Amel Ali, vice chair of Iowa City’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “I don't think that it's going to do anything for the communities that you think it's going to do anything for."
Josh Bates of North Liberty said the vehicle is not a tool that will improve safety of the community. Bates said there are residents in North Liberty, Tiffin and Oxford who “are pretty concerned about the increased militarization of our police force.”
Supervisors Jon Green and Lisa Green-Douglass expressed their opposition to both armored vehicles.
“I think it's inappropriate to have weapons of war in our community, whether they come straight from the Army or whether they come from defense contractors,” Green said. “I don't think that it's the most responsible use of the funds we're charged with disbursing.”
Green-Douglass, as well as the residents who spoke, indicated there was a “vague” policy of when the vehicle could be deployed and a lack of data on outcomes when it was.
“There needs to be follow-up like post incident interviews to find out what ended up happening, what impact did the MRAP have on that particular incident and the outcome,” Green-Douglass said.
Supervisor Royceann Porter said the MRAP is “very intimidating” and she had a conversation with the sheriff where she asked about a smaller vehicle.
“If we don't vote on the BearCat, the MRAP is still going to be in our community,” Porter said. “That is what they will continue to use. All five of us sitting up here do not have a say in that."
Although the county approves the sheriff’s budget, the sheriff is an independently elected official.
About half of the funds that Kunkel requested — $404,782 — are to replace deputy body and squad car cameras with a new system, with an additional $10,000 for on-site data storage.
Kunkel said there’s a “dire need” to replace the current cameras due to aging equipment and difficulty getting replacement parts from the manufacturer, L3. The new provider would be Motorola/WatchGuard.
Green-Douglass said she supports the cameras, but noted the budget impact of requesting the funds all at once instead of phasing in new cameras.
“It just seems kind of maybe lack of planning that these are all needing replacement at once instead of having created a schedule of replacement to reduce the budgetary impact,” Green-Douglass said.
Kunkel agreed that there needs to be a replacement schedule, and said he’s not sure why it wasn’t addressed before he was elected sheriff in 2020. When Green-Douglass asked about replacing the cameras in phases, Kunkel said he initially was not inclined to support that due to the challenges of having two systems during the changeover would cause.
“I wish we would’ve seen this coming a year ago or two years ago,” Kunkel said. “Here we are, and we’re at a critical point in these needing to be replaced.”
Supervisors requested additional information about the cameras, including cost per camera, how long they’re expected to last and if they can store more data.
The Sheriff’s Office is also requesting a new expense line of $10,000 to expand community outreach and public relations, including school events and increased educational opportunities.
The salary and vehicle cost for a new patrol deputy also was requested due to increased population growth in the county, and an increase in contract hours from Tiffin for the sheriff’s office to provide services, Kunkel said.
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