Staff Editorial

Filling a need, for armor and transparency

Police Chief Wayne Jerman (second on left) talks with staff before the start of a weekly crime strategy meeting in the McDaniel Board Room at the Cedar Rapids Police Station in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, January 29, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
Police Chief Wayne Jerman (second on left) talks with staff before the start of a weekly crime strategy meeting in the McDaniel Board Room at the Cedar Rapids Police Station in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, January 29, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Last week, the Cedar Rapids City Council voted to authorize the Police Department’s plan to purchase a 2019 Lenco BearCat G2 armored vehicle for $268,102. The Linn County Sheriff’s Office also will be receiving a BearCat, with a $297,000 price tag.

The agencies make a good case as to why they need such a vehicle. City Council members were told the BearCat, designed to take gunfire, could be utilized in active shooter scenarios where first responders, officers or civilians are wounded or pinned down. The vehicle can deliver first-responders more quickly into threat areas to provide aid to victims, among other uses. We fully support keeping officers and responders safe.

Less clear is why two law enforcement agencies headquartered within blocks of one another needed to purchase two BearCats, at a cost of more than half a million dollars. Greg Buelow, public safety communications coordinator for the city, said in an email there was talk of sharing a vehicle with the county and Marion. He said police ultimately concluded having fast access to their own vehicle, rather than working out a usage arrangement with other agencies, could save lives.

Point well taken, but we’d also like to see more cooperation between these agencies on a range of issues.

Cedar Rapids is purchasing its armored vehicle using dollars from its share of Federal Asset Forfeiture Program funds, including money confiscated from “drug dealers,” according to Police Chief Wayne Jerman. The dollars must be held in a special fund and used for law enforcement purposes. The BearCat cost will come out of a current forfeiture fund balance of $452,124, according to the department.

Cedar Rapids, which receives these dollars due to its role in federal anti-crime task forces, has tapped the forfeiture fund to cover more than $730,000 in law enforcement expenses between 2016 and 2018, including police training, software and services, according to the department. The largest expenditure came in Fiscal Year 2016 when $524,478 was spent on a equipment, training and expenses related to the police firing range.

Before last week’s vote, two City Council members asked whether the BearCat had been mentioned during the department’s budget presentation earlier this year. It wasn’t mentioned, but was, according to staff, listed in budget documents. Although the public can easily find how much “fines and forfeitures” the city projects to take in during a given fiscal year, there is far less information readily available on how forfeiture funds will be spent.

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This editorial board has been critical over the years of forfeiture policies in Iowa and nationally. Part of our concern centers on a lack of transparency at all levels regarding how much money is being seized, who gets it and how those dollars are being spent.

We appreciate Jerman’s willingness to seek City Council authorization for this purchase, but we’d like to see a clearer public accounting of forfeiture funds in the future. The public deserves to know more about how dollars, seized by agencies acting on their behalf, are being spent to advance public safety.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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