116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When former Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek acquired a military surplus vehicle in 2014, he made it sound like the giant armored truck would just sit in a garage.
“It's a tool we hope we never have to use. I can't emphasize that enough. We don't want to have to use it. We hope that nothing is ever bad enough that we have to get this thing out,” Pulkrabek told the North Liberty Leader.
That turned out to be wrong. Local law enforcement officials have used the vehicle more than 20 times since then. They use it the same way they acquired it — without any meaningful oversight from the public.
Trading out the big intimidating machine for a smaller intimidating machine will not solve the oversight problem.
Last week, a day after Johnson County officials faced questions about why they need a military vehicle, the Sheriff’s Office deployed it again to help serve a federal arrest warrant.
Law enforcement personnel reportedly used the MRAP (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle) to approach a suspect’s vehicle in rural West Branch. They said crisis negotiators inside the MRAP “established communication” with the man and he was taken into custody, but they don’t say how communication was established. Police said the suspect was “known to go armed” but didn’t say he actually had or used a weapon during the confrontation.
The news release directs further questions to the U.S. Marshals. But it’s not the federal government’s MRAP anymore, it’s Johnson County’s. Unless the Board of Supervisors drags the sheriff in to press him for answers, the public probably will get no additional information about why the military vehicle was needed in this situation.
When he put in his request with the U.S. military to get the vehicle, Pulkrabek did not seek input from the Board of Supervisors or the local city councils whose police departments would end up using it. His successor, Sheriff Brad Kunkel, is committed to keeping an armored vehicle despite vocal opposition from the public.
The War on Terror relic is the subject of fierce debate between police reform activists and elected officials. On the night in June 2020 when police used tear gas and flashbangs against Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Iowa City, the vehicle was stationed nearby for no apparent reason. Organizers of scrapthemrap.org have gathered more than 500 petition signatures calling to dispose of the vehicle.
But instead of getting rid of the MRAP, county officials are considering spending more than $200,000 to purchase a BearCat, a different armored vehicle ostensibly designed for domestic policing. Trading out the big intimidating machine for a smaller intimidating machine will not solve the oversight problem.
“The very fact that you scoffed at me when I asked for data was very disturbing.“ — Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass to Sheriff Brad Kunkel
At a 2022 budget planning session last week, three of the five Democrats on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors — Pat Heiden, Royceann Porter and Rod Sullivan — seemed to favor coughing up dough for a new armored vehicle.
“It seems like a Ping-Pong ball — it gets hit to the county and it gets hit to the city and it gets hit to the county,” said Sullivan, who has said he doesn’t like the MRAP but doesn’t want to tarnish his relationship with the sheriff over it.
What’s really being paddled back and forth here is accountability — Iowa City Council members asked the county to dispose of the MRAP but they haven’t forbade their own police department from using it; meanwhile, county supervisors are responsible for the vehicle but they say they don’t have any influence about how cities or their own sheriff’s office deploy it.
The other two supervisors — Jon Green and Lisa Green-Douglass — are questioning the need for an armored vehicle.
“There are data out there, in fact, showing agencies that have these in areas that have a lot more incidences of violence, and what has happened in terms of officer shootings. Have they gone down? And in fact, they have not. The very fact that you scoffed at me when I asked for data was very disturbing,” Green-Douglass told Kunkel at the meeting.
Supervisors plan to vote on the sheriff’s request to purchase a BearCat next month. If they reject the request, Kunkel says he will keep the MRAP and supervisors say they can’t force him to give it up.
What supervisors and city council members can do, though, is demand their agencies develop adequate policies for when it’s appropriate to roll out military equipment. They can demand detailed post-incident reports each time it’s deployed so the public has a better understanding of its use.
For now, supervisors hold the purse strings. They should say no to more police militarization.
“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. I don’t think that is the most responsible use of the funds we’re charged with dispersing,” Green said.
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