How Have Iowa Lawmakers Responded To Calls For Racial Justice In The Year Since Protests Started?
It’s been a year since Iowans filled the streets of cities across the state to protest George Floyd’s murder by a police officer. They called for changes to prevent police violence and to fix problems like the state’s severely disproportionate incarceration of Black residents.
As part of a series on what’s changed in the last year, Iowa Public Radio looked back at how the state legislature has responded to calls for racial justice.
The Iowa Legislature quickly and unanimously passed a police accountability bill last June soon after the protests started. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed the bill into law as activists chanted, “Black Lives Matter,” and Black lawmakers held their fists in the air.
“To the thousands of Iowans who have taken to the streets calling for reforms to address inequities faced by people of color in our state, I want you to know this is not the end of our work,” Reynolds said that day. “This is just the beginning.”
That law bans police chokeholds in most cases and allows the state attorney general to prosecute officers who kill someone. It also requires annual bias prevention and de-escalation training, and ensures officers fired for misconduct or who quit while being investigated can’t be rehired.
House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said last June he was proud of the bill, and that he wants justice for everyone.
“Is this the solution to every problem that we have? To every injustice? No,” he said. “But it’s a damn good start. And we can move forward from here. And we can do so united.”
About two months later, Reynolds signed an executive order restoring voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions, with some exceptions. She was working on that with the NAACP long before the protests started, and BLM activists also adopted it as one of their demands.
Next, Reynolds asked her criminal justice reform advisory committee to recommend ways to prevent racial profiling by law enforcement. The group worked on that for months and presented the proposal to Reynolds in late October.
“I look forward to working with our legislators, law enforcement and civil rights stakeholders on these recommendations to get this through the legislature,” Reynolds said in a virtual appearance at the Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities. “So I’m excited about taking that next step.”
At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, Reynolds put the proposal to ban racial profiling and collect data on police stops into an expansive policing bill. That proposal also included enhanced penalties for protest-related crimes, a new crime of “bias-motivated harassment” of police, and punishment for cities that reduce their police budgets.
Betty Andrews is the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP president, and she co-chaired the committee that developed anti-racial profiling recommendations.
“It really felt like a poison pill to all of the work that we had done,” Andrews said. “And…it was clearly a direct attack on some of the actions this past summer with our protesters, and with people who were standing up for racial justice.”
Republican lawmakers rejected the anti-racial profiling legislation, citing concerns from law enforcement groups.
Instead, they sent a bill to the governor’s desk that raises penalties for protest-related offenses. The bill also makes it illegal to walk on a highway, and makes it a crime to not pull over for an unmarked police vehicle. Nonpartisan analysts expect these changes to have an outsized impact on Black Iowans, thereby contributing to the extreme racial disparities in Iowa’s prisons. And First Amendment advocates worry the enhanced penalties will have a chilling effect on lawful protests.
The bill also expands qualified immunity, giving officers more protection from lawsuits accusing them of misconduct.
Racial justice advocates protested against the bill at the Statehouse in April.
“We’re literally in the middle of the Derek Chauvin trial, but we’re trying to pass bills to increase qualified immunity? What kind of sense does that make?” activist Harold Walehwa asked. “Why would y’all be trying to increase the protection police officers have instead of trying to go for accountability?”
The bill addresses some employment issues for law enforcement officers, but the final version did not include a provision that would require police departments to pay out accrued sick leave when an officer retires.
Republican leaders said they ran in the 2020 elections promising to “back the blue,” and that their constituents wanted them to respond to violence that was seen in a small fraction of last summer’s protests.
“Bottom line, we wanted to do a bill that showed support for law enforcement, that gave law enforcement additional tools to address community safety,” said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, who managed the bill in the House. “Those were the directives, and that was the bill we put forward.”
Klein said he supports “peaceful” protests, and that raising penalties for certain offenses is intended to encourage county attorneys to follow through with prosecuting some protesters. Some Iowans had their charges related to last summer’s protests dropped, while others are still moving through the court system.
Rep. Klein also noted the House advanced some bipartisan justice reform bills, but Senate Republicans never took them up.
That was disappointing to the head of the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus, Democratic Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo. He led the effort to pass last year’s police accountability bill and worked with GOP leaders and the governor to get that done. Smith said they didn’t reach out to him this year to try to build on that.
“It does feel like it’s backlash, especially because they took up none of the things that they committed to working on last year,” Smith said. “We didn’t do anything for anti-racial profiling. They committed to that last year. We didn’t touch it. Why not?”
In addition to the policing legislation, Republican lawmakers sent a bill to the governor’s desk that would put limits on teaching certain concepts related to racism and sexism in schools and in government agency diversity trainings. Reynolds also signed a bill into law ending diversity-related limits on open enrollment at five Iowa school districts.
Smith said he still has a lot of hope and optimism that state lawmakers will do more to respond to calls for racial and social justice in the future.
“There’s something beautiful about understanding the challenges that exist, and turning those into opportunities to move forward and do some good things,” Smith said. “And so I’m going to stay open armed…if they want to get back into the fold and do some good stuff for people.”