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Iowa Lawmakers Unanimously Pass Police Reforms In One 'Historic' Day

ras smith
John Pemble
Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, Thursday announced a plan to help prevent police violence in front of the Iowa Capitol.

In a day that lawmakers called historic, the Iowa Legislature introduced and unanimously passed a set of police reforms Thursday as Black Lives Matter protesters looked on.

Last week, amid ongoing protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, a group of Democratic state lawmakers proposed policies aimed at preventing police violence.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, chairs the Legislative Black Caucus that represents the five people of color in Iowa’s 150-person legislature. When first announcing the police reform plan, he said no one law can end racism or inequities.

“But today we can begin to respond to the crisis, to bring justice to George Floyd, and work towards a day where no Iowan has to fear becoming another hashtag,” Smith said.

Des Moines Black Lives Matter listed that plan for police reforms as one of their several demands for state government to address racial injustices. And this week, a group of BLM activists came to the Capitol to push for change.

On Thursday afternoon, after a few days of negotiations among Republicans, Democrats and the governor, lawmakers moved very quickly to approve a bipartisan compromise.

Thebill passed Thursday allows the state attorney general to prosecute law enforcement officers whose actions result in death. It bans police chokeholds except when there’s a threat of deadly force. Law enforcement officers who were fired for misconduct or quit while being investigated can’t be rehired under the bill. And it requires every law enforcement officer in the state to be trained in bias prevention and de-escalation techniques each year.

Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, said black men and women have been persecuted by police for too long.

“Too long have black mothers waited for their sons to come home to only find out that they’ve been killed in the street,” Gaines said. “Too long have children waited for their black fathers, finding out that they would never come home. When will it end?”

Gaines said the time is now.

Republican leaders have previously rejected anti-racial profiling legislation and minority impact statements proposed by black lawmakers.

But the Republican-led House and Senate debated the police reform bill at the same time, with Gov. Kim Reynolds appearing in both chambers to listen to the debate. Lawmakers could not recall a time when a new bill moved this quickly or when they saw a governor attending one of their debates.

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said he was recently watching the George Floyd protests in Des Moines on TV. He saw Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, talk with a young protester.

“My takeaway from that conversation…was that young man saying there are injustices happening across this country, and they’re not being paid attention to,” Windschitl said. “There are things that need change, but were not being heard. He’s right.”

Windschitl said that made him wonder what the Iowa House of Representatives could do to help, and said this bill is a “damn good start.”

Rep. Abdul-Samad said Iowa has a history of leading on civil rights but has failed for decades to address racial injustice and police killings of black Americans. He said he is glad about the bill passing, but he isn’t happy.

“I’m sad because I stood in a line and watched young people with tears coming down their face because they were looking at us, and I saw the same tears that came down my face when I was standing there protesting and we were trying to become the game changers and no one listened to us,” Abdul-Samad said. “So I saw their tears. I saw their pain. I heard the hurt. But that’s what it took for us to move. But now that we have moved, let us keep moving. Let us not turn around.”

Rep. Ras Smith called it a bittersweet moment.

“I’m heartbroken by the injustice that has plagued our country for generations,” Smith said. “I’m here to acknowledge and inform you all that the work ahead of us is plentiful and tough. But I have so much hope. I’m hopeful because at this time in Iowa, we stepped up to make real change. At a time when we could’ve taken our ball and gone home, we didn’t.”

In a social media post, Des Moines Black Lives Matter said they made history Thursday. And the group plans to be back at the statehouse Friday to ask state leaders to do more.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter