Johnson County Sheriff's MRAP vehicle (photo courtesy KCRG-TV)

Johnson County Sheriff’s MRAP vehicle (photo courtesy KCRG-TV)

Many residents of eastern Iowa voiced concern in June when the Johnson County Sheriff’s department acquired a mine resistant vehicle. Calls to get rid of the 60,000 pound vehicle have ramped-up amid nationwide calls to “demilitarize” police. But, in an interview with KCRG-TV, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek defended the vehicle as another “tool in the toolbox” for his deputies and other local law enforcement agencies. “It’s not like we’re getting a tank, it’s not like we’re getting a battleship,” Pulkrabek said.

The county received the “mine resistant ambush protected” vehicle, or MRAP, 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 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. Sean Curtin of Iowa City isn’t convinced it’s necessary. “I think the benefits of the MRAP are marginal to nonexistent, but its chilling effect on the First Amendment evident, as we’ve seen recently in Ferguson, Missouri,” Curtin said.

A heavily armed police response to the recent protests of the shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson have shined a new light on the issue. President Obama, this week, said there is “a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred.” He believes there may be “bipartisan interest in reexamining” the military surplus program. Sheriff Pulkrabek believes that would be a mistake. “I was disappointed in the President weighing in like that on the program…you know, the President is fairly well protected,” Pulkrabek said.

A protest, in part about the militarization of police forces, is planned for tonight in Iowa City. Next week, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors may call on the sheriff and emergency manager to answer questions about the MRAP acquisition. Supervisor Terrance Neuzil told KCRG it’s a discussion that’s needed. “When it comes to any kind of purchases of this magnitude, we do want to have at least some oversight when it comes to the finances of that, the insurance of it, the risk management of it, the storage of it,” Neuzil said.

The MRAP typically carries a sticker price of $733,000. The county received it free of charge, although officials did pay $3,500 to transport it and $5,000 to paint it. That money was drug forfeiture money and not tax dollars, Pulkrabek said. More than a half-dozen Iowa communities have added MRAP-type vehicles to their forces in recent months, including the cities of Washington and Marshalltown.

by Mark Carlson, KCRG-TV, Cedar Rapids