Lonny’s tank

ICDP Watch
9 min readJul 27, 2021


The murky origins of Johnson County’s MRAP

In early 1964, in preparation for what a guest editorial in Jackson’s Clarion-Ledger later called a “Mississippi Invasion,” the City of Jackson, Mississippi acquired a “riot-control vehicle”. With the blessing of then-mayor Allen Thompson, the City purchased a purpose-built, 13,000-pound International Harvester Loadstar 1600 truck outfitted with searchlights, sirens, armor, metal bars, grating, gun ports, jagged barbs around the bottom, and a submachine gun. Its menacing look earned it the fitting moniker — “Thompson’s Tank”.

The truck was the crown jewel of “Allen’s Army”, “a deterrent force of men and military hardware” Thompson has built to “defend” the capital city from a forecasted wave of civil-rights demonstrations. The mayor didn’t shy away from boasting about his “army” to the press, reportedly saying to the New York Times, “We’re ready for them. We’ve got the stuff.”, and declaring to Newsweek that “There will be no unlawful marching and peaceful picketing. We are not going to let them come into the downtown area.

“Thompson’s Tank” in its calm state, no shotguns bristling from its gun ports anymore.

It’s worth noting that the very first attempt to use the vehicle pronounced to be “the core of police defense” to suppress a student demonstration at Jackson State College in early February 1964 flopped spectacularly: as the truck rolled up to the site of the demonstration, a teargas shell went off inside, and the twelve police officers it was carrying stumbled out crying.

Six years later, on May 14th, 1970, the vehicle was used in another police confrontation on Jackson State College’s campus. In response to someone setting fire to a dump truck parked a few blocks from Jackson State’s campus, the Jackson Police Department and the Mississippi Highway Patrol marched onto the campus, and, reportedly reacting to a bottle hitting the pavement, in 28 seconds unleashed more than 400 rounds of ammunition in every direction. Two students were killed, and 12 more were wounded.

In June 2014, fifty years after the “Thompson’s Tank” was conceived, the ACLU released a damning report titled “War Comes Home,” which described, in devastating detail, how U.S. policing has become unnecessarily and dangerously militarized, in large part through federal programs that have armed state and local law enforcement agencies with the weapons and tactics of war, with almost no public discussion or oversight.

The report specifically zeroed in on the Department of Defense’s 1033 Program, which was one of the main routes through which a law enforcement agency could get its hands on a virtually unlimited arsenal of military-grade weaponry, free of charge. One of such weapons that became available to police departments across the country in 2013 was the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP.

Johnson County’s MRAP, not quite fitting into a parking spot.

The same month when the “War Comes Home” report came out, Johnson County, Iowa’s Sheriff’s Office used the 1033 Program to acquire one of the MRAPs. Commenting on the acquisition, then-Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek said that it’s “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.”

The Black Lives Matters protests in Iowa City and Coralville last year apparently qualified.

On June 3, 2020, Iowa City police, along with the Iowa State Patrol and other area agencies, used tear gas and flash-bangs on peaceful protestors who were marching toward I-80. The MRAP was parked on “standby” near the protests, just in case the tear gas and flash-bangs weren’t enough to remind the protestors who is boss.

Even though this “standby” MRAP presence was a clear violation of the vehicle’s stated deployment policy, there were no consequences for the Sheriff’s Office or any of the agencies involved. In the aftermath of the public outcry that followed, the Iowa City Council did send the Sheriff’s office a letter asking it to “divest” from the MRAP. Pulkrabek refused.

If there is one thing about Johnson County’s MRAP that is uncontroversial, it’s that it’s very much Lonny Pulkrabek’s baby.

Back in 2014, shortly after the MRAP was first acquired, the Solon Economist published an exhaustive piece detailing the vehicle’s costs, features, acquisition process and how the county came into possession of the truck. It painted a picture of a legitimate, prescribed procurement process, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed —for a contentious piece of equipment, sure — but sourced with the buy-in of all the stakeholders. It was almost convincing, until we started digging.

The Solon Economist coverage pointed to Johnson County Emergency Management Agency’s Coordinator Dave Wilson as “the appointed official” who handled the acquisition and transportation of the MRAP, so we started there.

One of these institutions you probably didn’t know existed, “Emergency Management Agency”, or EMA, is a government entity managed by the Emergency Management Commission, which is basically a joint county governing body formed under the authority of Iowa Code 29C.9 and consisting of a member of the Board of Supervisors (or its representative), the Sheriff (or the Sheriff’s representative), and the Mayor or the Mayor’s representative for each city within the county. At the time, Janelle Rettig was representing the Board of Supervisors, Lonny Pulkrabek was representing the Sheriff’s office, and most of the cities were represented by their corresponding Mayors.

Johnson County EMA org chart as of February 2014

Interestingly enough, when the news of the MRAP acquisition first broke, Janelle Rettig went on the record to say that she did not know about the MRAP until it was being painted in Solon.

Noting the above, and armed with the org chart and the EMA Commission’s bylaws, we reached out to Dave Wilson, the EMA Coordinator, and asked him for a copy of the application that was filed in order to acquire the MRAP. Dave refused, telling us that he in fact is not a lawful custodian of the application that he authored, and that we should contact the Sheriff’s Office instead.

We pressed for details, and, through a series of emails and follow-ups with Dave and other county and state officials, reconstructed the following sequence of events and corresponding facts:

  1. At some point, in an informal conversation, Dave Wilson was asked by Pulkrabek “if the EMA commission might be interested in pooling funds or sharing the cost for future maintenance and operations” [of an MRAP] and Wilson said that he “would expect them to be interested in the project because it will likely get more use during blizzards, floods and natural disaster events then it would from active shooter events.”
  2. Despite the Sheriff’s repeated statements in the press that the six local agencies, including the EMA, “pooled forfeiture money from the Johnson County Drug Task Force for the transportation, painting and equipping,” the EMA Commission did not have any formal say in the matter. There was no vote at a commission meeting or a formal discussion that took place before the MRAP acquisition process was set in motion.
  3. As a matter of fact, the EMA is not a part of the Drug Task Force, and Wilson did not have any knowledge of how or when the decision to pull the forfeiture money from the Johnson County Drug Task Force was made.
  4. Lonny Pulkrabek did ask Dave Wilson to help with the paperwork to request the MRAP and “get it to Iowa”. Lonny’s ask was a verbal conversation between him and Dave.
  5. The paperwork was prepared and submitted to a regional 1033 Program’s manager, with only Dave Wilson and the Sheriff’s office being ‘in the know’.
  6. The submitted “Armored Vehicle (MRAP) Justification”, among other things, included the following statement:

“Fiscal wherewithal? This is a multi agency and multi hazard response tool and as such we would share fiscal support for vehicle operation and maintenance among the 5 local LE agencies and our County Homeland Security Agency. JCSO has an operating budget in excess of 3 million dollars and the County EMA has a budget of $345,000.00 which can all be shared to maintain the vehicle, the remaining 4 agencies would also provide financial support to maintain it.”

[Editorial note: “County Homeland Security Agency” is just another name for EMA.]

7. According to the Iowa Code and the EMA Commission’s bylaws, only the Commission as a whole can make budgetary decisions.

8. At the time the MRAP paperwork, including the cited fiscal wherewithal statement, was submitted, the EMA Commission as a whole was unaware of the Sheriff’s decision to acquire an MRAP.

9. After the MRAP was already acquired, the EMA Commission was forced to take formal action “in order to address how and if they want to continue to handle the liability insurance of the MRAP” and whether it wants “to put forth any funds toward insurance and/or maintenance costs in the next budget year or if they expect drug seizure funds to reimburse them any of those costs.”

10. According to Dana Aschenbrenner, Johnson County Finance Administrator:

— The County considers the MRAP “an EMA asset, and they are the de-facto owners of the vehicle.”

— The Sheriff had the authority and authorized the use of drug forfeiture proceeds for the MRAP acquisition.

While we don’t know for sure what conversations, if any, happened among the Johnson County Drug Task Force members prior to the MRAP acquisition, I think, given the above, it’s safe to say that the narrative of a joint, coordinated, consensual procurement of the military truck is largely false. What seemed to happen here is that the Sheriff single-handedly decided that we need an MRAP and so he got one, using some creative devices to work around the “technicalities,” while selling it to the public as a joint, consensus-driven decision of all of the municipalities in the county’s jurisdiction. The EMA Commission then rubber-stamped the acquisition post-factum and took on the fiscal responsibilities sprung on it, even as some of the members grumbled about it publicly. Outside of the mysterious Johnson County Drug Task Force side of this affair, there was no discussion of the pros and cons, let alone soliciting of the public’s input — and that appears to be the whole point.

Lonny had the authority and the funds to pay for the MRAP with the drug forfeiture proceeds. He also probably had enough leverage with the EMA Commission to have them agree to pick up the insurance and maintenance costs for the vehicle beforehand, and even if he didn’t, that clearly wasn’t a showstopper. But what he apparently couldn’t stomach is the idea of having a public discussion on whether our communities and police forces need further militarization, and so he went to great lengths to make sure that the MRAP was a done deal before any of that discussion occurred.

Never mind that, because we now do have an MRAP, all conversations about local police having a military vehicle now start from the assumption that we can’t do without one. Never mind that we now have an MRAP serving search warrants in our neighborhoods and chilling our right to protest. Never mind the absence of any meaningful accountability in regard to its deployment, or the needless escalation and endangerment that this monster military truck brought and will bring into the many situations where it is deployed just because we have it and can.

Lonny got a d̶o̶g̶ tank, and we are left to clean up the mess.

October 16, 2021 update: Visit https://scrapthemrap.org/ to add your voice to the petition asking the Johnson County officials to dispose of the MRAP and to not acquire any other “replacement” military-style vehicle.

December 2, 2021 follow up:

December 4, 2021 update: Join us on Monday, December 6 at 9am on Zoom or in-person for a Board of Supervisors’ budget work session where our current Sheriff will be asking for a $250,000+ budget expansion to acquire a yet another military-style vehicle.



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