116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Johnson County sheriff and Board of Supervisors are at odds over their armored vehicle.
The county acquired a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle — or MRAP — in 2014 under the Obama administration’s military surplus giveaway. Public opposition to the behemoth truck was stoked last month when police used it to serve warrants in an Iowa City residential neighborhood.
“Seeing the MRAP come down into a Black neighborhood, it’s very intimidating. … I don’t want to see that huge thing coming in my neighborhood,” Supervisor Royceann Porter said.
At the public’s urging, supervisors are publicly questioning the need for military vehicles on city streets, but they say they can’t force the sheriff to get rid of it.
MRAP or not, Johnson County’s ongoing debate gets at a more basic question about representative democracy at the local level — who is law enforcement accountable to?
Law enforcement officials won’t offer specifics about what justifies its use. Every situation is different, and we’re just supposed to trust them.
In a year since the new police accountability movement emerged after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis cop, state and city officials in Iowa have been the most frequent targets of protesters’ fierce criticism. County governments have managed to skate by with relatively little scrutiny.
But counties need that same level of scrutiny. Sheriff’s deputies are law enforcers for the whole county, and more importantly, the county houses inmates and prosecutes cases. There can be no meaningful justice reform without drastic changes to county government.
Boards of supervisors in Iowa’s 99 counties are responsible for overseeing county operations and setting the budget. But all 99 sheriffs are duly elected officials with independence to manage their offices.
Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel was first elected last year after 20 years as a deputy in the same agency. He sailed through the primary against one fellow Democrat with 82 percent of the vote and earned a whopping 98 percent in the uncontested general election. With a sample size of one election cycle, it appears voters in Iowa’s bluest county are satisfied with his vision for law enforcement.
And Kunkel is not budging on the armored vehicle issue. He said the only alternative is to spend $200,000 or more for another armored vehicle known as a Bearcat, which is smaller but still menacing.
The MRAP has 19 documented deployments since 2014, though some might have been omitted through record-keeping discrepancies. They are mostly related to shooting and homicide investigations after a crime has already occurred.
Critics say there are inconsistencies and possible racial bias in where the vehicle is deployed — not every weapons warrant necessitates the armored vehicle, and law enforcement officials won’t offer specifics about what justifies its use. Every situation is different, and we’re just supposed to trust them.
The vehicle was put on “standby” near Black Lives Matters protests in Iowa City last year. One of the protesters’ demands was to get rid of the MRAP.
The Iowa City Council last year sent a letter to the then-sheriff, asking him to dispose of the MRAP. Not only was the request denied, but Iowa City police are still using the military truck. When cities can’t even govern their own employees, there’s a big problem.
While Johnson County supervisors are sympathetic to the demilitarization movement, it’s clear who really has their ear.
The board heard public comment at the start of their work session this past week, but not during or after their discussion about the MRAP. In contrast, they gave the mic to any sheriff’s deputy who wanted to speak. Before they moved on to other business, board Chair Pat Heiden made sure to ask if there were any other officers who wanted to speak, but didn’t offer the same to regular old civilians.
Despite telling the board he doesn’t like not having answers to questions, Kunkel repeatedly did not have clear responses to supervisors’ inquiries. He declined to talk in detail about MRAP deployments that took place before he took over about six months ago, or about uses by other departments.
That was puzzling, since Kunkel is a longtime veteran of the office and the last sheriff’s deputies are now his deputies. Previous Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek, an ally who endorsed Kunkel early in last year’s primary season, was in the Board of Supervisors chambers for the work session. Kunkel literally could have turned around and asked him.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to second-guess the decisions made by the previous administration when I didn’t have access to the same information that they had nor was I in a position to make command level decisions,” Kunkel wrote me in an email after the meeting.
The sheriff’s reluctance to question the decisions of a former administration is totally paralyzing to productive conversation. We are supposed to be taking a critical look at police practices, but we’re expected to put everything that happened more than six months ago in an inscrutable memory hole?
Toward the end of the meeting, they finally got to the important stuff: What is the appropriate oversight role of the Board of Supervisors over law enforcement, Supervisor Jon Green asked Kunkel. It was another “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know that we’re going to get into that today. That’s a longer legal and philosophical conversation to have another time,” Kunkel said.
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