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Johnson County response agencies band together for armored vehicle

Another tool in the Toolbox

By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
JOHNSON COUNTY– It’s just another tool in the toolbox for law enforcement personnel, or so said Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek about the MRAP (Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected) truck his department and five other law enforcement agencies across the county jointly obtained.
The 58,000-pound, six-wheeled vehicle was built at a cost to taxpayers of $733,000 for use by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. With American forces out of Iraq (new deployments not withstanding) and a drawdown of our forces in Afghanistan, MRAP vehicles have now become military surplus. Over six years, 27,000 of the vehicles were built. While many are being scrapped at a cost of approximately $12,000, others are being made available through a federal program to law enforcement agencies. Under the 1033 Program, the Defense Logistics Agency provides military equipment through The Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO). The LESO was born out of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1997, which allows for excess Department of Defense (DoD) property to be transferred to law enforcement. According to the LESO website, more than $4.3 billion worth of property has been transferred, with $449,309,004 worth of equipment going to law enforcement agencies in 2013. Congress authorized the federal government in 1990 and 1991 to transfer excess DoD property to state agencies to combat drug activities. The 1997 authorization expanded the transfers to all law enforcement agencies; however, preference was still given to counter-drug and counter-terrorism requests.
Equipment made available through LESO includes office furniture, commercial/industrial grade appliances, exercise equipment, generators, tents, general law enforcement equipment, All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), cranes, various trucks, and tactical vehicles such as HUMVEEs and the newer MRAPs.
MRAP (commonly pronounced “em-rap”) is a general term for a broad class of vehicles. Marines.com describes the vehicles as having a v-shaped” hull, raised chassis and armored plating. “The MRAP has proven to be the single most effective counter to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Blast-resistant underbodies and layers of thick, armored glass offer unparalleled protection while all-terrain suspension and run-flat combat tires ensure Marines can operate in complex and highly restricted rural, mountainous and urban terrains,” is the website’s description.
Around 600 MRAPs have been issued across the country, with 14 going to Black Hawk, Buena Vista (two vehicles), Des Moines, Jasper, Johnson, Lyon, Marshall, Cerro Gordo, Muscatine, Scott, Woodbury, Story and Washington counties.
In order to obtain an MRAP or other equipment, an agency’s appointed official contacts the state coordinator– located in the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement– and makes a request.
Johnson County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Coordinator Dave Wilson was the appointed official who handled the acquisition and transportation of Johnson County’s MRAP.
“Essentially you complete the paperwork, provide justification and get on a list,” Wilson explained. Vehicles are issued on a first-come, first-serve basis once an agency has been approved, and as equipment become available. Wilson said the agencies receive whatever vehicle the feds choose to send. “You get what they give you. You have no choice in the matter,” he said.
The only cost to the law enforcement agency is transportation and any other work they choose to do on the vehicle, such as installing radios or emergency vehicle lights. Wilson was able to line up transportation for getting the MRAP back to Johnson County.
“We just shopped around for shipping and found a vendor, someone that had moved several others, based out of Des Moines. They did it for $3,500. It came from just outside of Houston, Texas, at the factory in Sealy to Solon for paint.” Pulkrabek noted the MRAP was refurbished and has a new engine and transmission, and came with all new tires and six spares.
Mark’s Auto Body in Solon painted the vehicle black for approximately $5,000. Sheriff Pulkrabek said Mark’s has painted other county vehicles, such as the truck used by the county’s bomb squad, which came from the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Pulkrabek said the bomb truck was given to the county, and the value of the two vehicles equals over a million dollars worth of equipment, but at no further taxpayer expense.
“That’s pretty good for the citizens, I think,” Pulkrabek said. He said some municipalities and counties have purchased armored trucks, known as BearCats, at a much greater expense to the taxpayers.
“That’s taxpayer dollars, out of their budget, to buy a piece of equipment that some deem necessary,” he said.
Pulkrabek explained that six agencies– the police departments in North Liberty, Coralville and Iowa City, as well as EMA and the University of Iowa’s Public Safety Department plus the sheriff’s office– pooled forfeiture money from the Johnson County Drug Task Force for the transportation, painting and equipping, using a budget of $10,000 for the project, and avoiding dipping into their budgets and using taxpayer provided funds. North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga said her city’s share was around $1,500.
“These funds can only be used on equipment that are not budgeted items,” Venenga said. “We have used these funds in the past to purchase equipment for our Drug Task Force officer, and also for the buy-in to be part of the Cedar Rapids Police (gun) range remodel.”
When asked why the agencies applied for an MRAP, Pulkrabek cited Johnson County’s status as the fourth-most populous county in the state with the University of Iowa‘s population.
“There’s always the fear that we could have an active shooter situation,” Pulkrabek said. He called the MRAP, “another tool in the toolbox, but 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.”
But in today’s world, he added, “It can happen anywhere, anytime, anyhow. And to have another tool that we can use to keep our officers safe, and perhaps keep some citizens safe… or rescue some citizens, it’s a benefit to have it.”
The vehicle’s famed all-terrain capability could potentially lead the MRAP to be used in non-violent, non-law enforcement incidents as well, he said.
“The thing will go about anywhere,” Pulkrabek said, making it useful in blizzard and flooding situations. He said it’s not uncommon for the National Guard to rescue stranded motorists during blizzard conditions, and sometimes, even the rescuers need rescued. Pulkrabek recalled a state trooper who was stuck in a snow bank trying to get to a woman in labor. A Johnson County deputy in an SUV also got stuck trying to pull him out. “(The MRAP) will go some places other vehicles can’t,” he said, and in addition to snow, the MRAP would be useful on flooded roads and in areas where getting boats into the water would be difficult, if not impossible. “It’s a pretty versatile vehicle,” Pulkrabek said.
Various county agencies already partner for various efforts, such as the Drug Task Force, the Bomb Squad, the Dive Team and the County Hazardous Materials (HAZ-MAT) team. Pulkrabek characterized the acquistion of the MRAP as “just another partnership to help our citizens.”
“I supported getting the MRAP and am glad to be involved,” Chief Venenga said. “This would not be something that NLPD alone would acquire, but it makes more sense for Johnson County. With cooperative agreements with all of the local law enforcement agencies in Johnson County we can mutually own and share the costs.”
Venenga and Pulkrabek both spoke of the increased officer safety the MRAP could provide.
“In high risk events we want to be able to have options available to use that are easily assessable and available,” Venenga said.
Pulkrabek gave two examples where an MRAP might have made a difference for law enforcement officers.
In April 2011, Sgt. Eric John Stein of the Keokuk County Sheriff’s Office was, shot and killed while attempting to question a man described as mentally ill about an incident from the previous night. The man, who had barricaded himself inside a house, later emerged with a gun and was killed by an Iowa State Patrol tactical unit. Pulkrabek called the incident the classic case for using an MRAP.
“He knew they were coming, they’d been in contact the past few days and came back to check on him. They pull up, he sees them, they see him in the window with a gun and he starts shooting. Those guys were pinned down. They had help coming, but you can’t just come rolling in on a hot scene like that.” An MRAP would’ve been very helpful, Pulkrabek reasoned.
Likewise, such a vehicle might have allowed officers to safely approach Scheels All Sports in the Coral Ridge Mall in December 2012, when a man drove through the front glass doors of the store and headed for the firearms department while armed with his own handgun.
“The vehicle could have transported officers to a position closer to the store, where they didn’t have to take risks,” Pulkrabek said.
The MRAP could be used in serving high risk warrants as well, especially if intelligence indicates the person has a large number of firearms. Officer safety is the ultimate goal, said the sheriff. “Anything that we can do to reduce the chances of an officer being injured or killed is a positive and if we can get in and rescue someone, it’s a positive.” But, he emphasized, “I hope we never have to use it.”
The MRAP vehicle has no offensive capabilities– no guns or turrets– as MRAPs are de-militarized when made surplus. “It won’t have a water cannon; I’ve heard that (rumor) as well,” Pulkrabek said. The county does have a water cannon, utilized by the bomb squad and carried on their truck to deactivate suspicious packages.
Currently each agency is in the process of getting personnel trained to operate the MRAP vehicle. NLPD Chief Venenga said her department already has one officer with military experience trained to operate it, and an additional driver will be trained as a backup.
Criticism has been forthcoming from both sides of the political spectrum, with some questioning the need for such a machine and others decrying the militarization of law enforcement. Pulkrabek called the detractors a vocal minority.
“There is a need, unfortunately, for armored vehicles. No matter what people may say,” said Pulkrabek. “Usually the people talking about it aren’t the ones who’ll be going into a hot scene. It’ll be us. We are a reactionary business. We react to what we are called to. And, having the ability to react in different, appropriate means is a benefit.”
It’s a different world, he said, pointing to a shootout in North Hollywood, California in February 1997 as a turning point for law enforcement. On that fateful day a pair of would-be bank robbers with a variety of select-fire and automatic rifles (illegal to own without additional federal permits) and homemade body armor engaged in a firefight with the Los Angeles Police Department. The officers quickly found their pistols and shotguns ineffective. Eventually, the pair was killed, but not before nearly 2,000 rounds had been fired and 12 officers and eight civilians wounded. In the aftermath, law enforcement agencies began equipping their officers with semi-automatic rifles.
“I think that was a wake-up call to law enforcement,” Pulkrabek said, “that we were often out-gunned by the bad guys. Unfortunately, law enforcement is a very dangerous profession.”
In 2013, 100 officers were killed in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Fund: 31 were shot, 28 died in auto crashes, 13 died from job-related illness and 11 were struck by vehicles.
As for those who disagree with the county’s MRAP, Pulkrabek said, “we’ll have to agree to disagree. It’s simply another tool on the tool belt for law enforcement. I don’t think of it as anything more, or anything less, than a tool. There are a lot of people in this world who have evil ideas, evil thoughts and evil actions. And we’re the front lines for dealing with that evil. There are people with violent intentions, and they exercise them, unfortunately.”