Munson: Heavy-duty military equipment given to police

Des Moines Register.com — April 7, 2014

Scott County received its MRAP last year. Click to enlarge

The police chief has yet to mount flashing lights and a siren and plaster his department’s official logo on the sides of his new vehicle.

Not that Greg Goodman needs such window dressings so that this 49,000-pound, 10-foot-tall, six-wheel-drive behemoth will cause necks to crane and local motorists to veer out of the way.

Twenty-nine years ago when he joined the Washington Police Department, Goodman never imagined he would crave such a thing. The newest and by far bulkiest addition to his fleet makes a Chevy Tahoe SUV look like a Hot Wheels collectible: a fully armored military vehicle designed to prowl a desert war zone.

This MRAP — pronounced “em-rap” and short for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected — is the talk of southeast Iowa.

Military recycling after more than a decade of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to this: Through a federal program, seven of these metal beasts have been donated to Iowa law enforcement agencies — five of them in recent weeks.

Police departments in Mason City and Storm Lake also have received MRAPs, as well as sheriffs in Buena Vista, Jasper, Scott and Story counties.

Goodman and his counterparts in other cities tend to describe the MRAP as merely “another tool” to keep officers safe when a pistol and body armor are insufficient.

Washington’s “Crisis Response Unit” (a mobile command center) is just an old, converted ambulance. And none of its squad cars are bulletproof, let alone designed with a v-shaped belly to deflect bomb blasts.

So Goodman envisions the MRAP as an extreme option during tense standoffs, (God forbid) school shootings or even a tornado.

“I hope it’s not used a lot,” he said. “That means things are going very well.”

The Washington City Council took convincing before it approved this controversial freebie, and Councilman Robert Shellmyer held firm last month with the lone “no” vote that he wears as a badge of honor.

“We’re being laughed at,” said Shellmyer, 78. “I went to Ainsworth the other day, and everybody wants to ask me if we’re sleeping better at night now that we have the ‘tank.’”

It seems like a worthy chicken-or-egg debate: Has civilian life gotten dangerous enough that small towns should be equipped with Army gear? Or is this a militarization of local police that escalates tension?

Overseas, MRAPs have been credited with saving thousands of soldiers’ lives where flimsier Humvees were blown apart.

The latest of seven MRAPs to arrive in Iowa was received last week by the Washington Police Department. Click to enlarge

But it was this local scenario that convinced Goodman to puruse a MRAP: Friday marked the third anniversary of the death of Keokuk County sheriff’s deputy Eric Stein, who was shot and killed by a man with a history of mental illness during what became a four-hour standoff with 164 rounds fired.

“It’s just the violent nature of what’s going on out there now,” Goodman said in favor of the MRAP to protect his 10 full-time and two part-time officers.

But Washington isn’t Kandahar City circa 2011; when and where to deploy the MRAP in Iowa can be a subtler decision.

“How do we know, having a six-wheel armored vehicle, it’s going to be on the site when the bullet’s shot that’s going to do the injury?” Shellmyer said.

The buzz lingered last week at the Coffee Corner on town square. Owner Gina Richardson described how one customer brought photos of the MRAP, sparking a lively debate about whether a small county (22,000 residents) needs such a big machine.

“Probably they should’ve left the weapon in there,” deadpanned Paul Beezley, referring to the turret gun that was removed.

Some $4.3 billion worth of “demilitarized” property — including more than $449 million last year — has made its way to domestic city streets since 1997 through the “1033 program” run by the federal Law Enforcement Support Office.

That includes 1,119 weapons that have been distributed to 220 law enforcement agencies in Iowa.

Goodman, for instance, previously received two M-16s plus night vision scopes, helmets and breathing masks through the same program.

“Weapons is the big thing,” said Kathryn Blake, a secretary for Iowa’s Division of Narcotics Enforcement who’s state coordinator for the 1033 program.

For the last decade she also has been a surveillance technician with the Air National Guard 133rd Test Squadron out of Fort Dodge — so she’s on both the civilian and military sides of this equation.

“I just think it’s a great way to help the taxpayers,” she said, “because they’re not paying for items twice.”

Washington’s MRAP, valued at $733,000, was as “free” to the city as a diesel monster with a 74-gallon gas tank that guzzles down the road at 5 miles per gallon can be.

Buena Vista County last year picked up a smaller, four-wheeled model called a MaxxPro and has has used it only twice, both times to make arrests where weapons were expected to be on hand.

Down the street from city hall in Washington, the maintenance shed for the U.S. Army Reserve 88th Regional Support Command is where Jared Dennis supervises seven other mechanics. They work on Humvees, dump trucks and dozers, but no MRAPs.

“That’s probably the first (MRAP) I’ve seen since I’ve been back from Iraq,” said Dennis, who was deployed there twice between 2003 and 2008.

His advice: Change the oil every 3,000 miles or annually, whichever comes first. Its fatal design flaw? The air conditioning always seemed to bust in the MRAPs in Iraq.

Sgt. Shawn Ellingson is a 24-year veteran of the Washington police who leads the tactical unit. He was one of the officers who trekked to Texas to pick up the MRAP from BAE Systems in Sealy, Texas, a manufacturing plant for military tactical vehicles that’s due to shut down in June.

In the last week he has cleaned copious stray sand out of the MRAP’s crevices — just in case he wondered whether it was an authentic relic from the battlefield.

Ellingson also discovered a small page of notebook paper still clipped to the front passenger visor with the handwritten names of four soldiers who presumably served inside the vehicle while at war.

In reverence, he left the piece of paper in place.

No matter whether people here think the MRAP is just another tool or should remain a war tool, everybody wants to keep its precious cargo safe, everywhere.

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