© 2023 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa Senate Passes Bills To Enhance Penalties For Protest-Related Crimes, Prevent 'Defunding The Police'

iowa senate
John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Senate passed bills that would increase penalties for protest-related offenses and punish cities that reduce their police budgets

The Iowa Senate passed bills Wednesday that would increase penalties for protest-related offenses and punish cities that reduce their police budgets, both in response to last summer’s protests against racial injustice.

The bill raising penalties passed on a party-line vote with Republicans voting in favor. It also includes some liability protection for drivers who accidentally injure protesters who are unlawfully blocking traffic. Law enforcement would be required to detain people for 24 hours if they’re arrested for alleged protest-related crimes.

Many of these provisions came from Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed “Back the Blue Act.”

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said it’s a response to the racial justice protests last summer. While most protests in Iowa were nonviolent, Garrett described the physical conflict between protesters and police that happened outside the Statehouse in July.

“Those are folks out violating the law,” Garrett said. “That’s why we have these provisions in the bill, to try to make the penalties enough that people will think twice about it.”

The enhanced criminal penalties would disproportionately affect Black Iowans, according to an analysis of the bill by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency. This comes after protesters called for an end to the severe racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system.

Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, reminded the Senate that last summer’s protests were about the unfair treatment of Black Americans.

“We’re acting now like it was an isolated incident of a bunch of nuts that came out and just started destroying property,” Bisignano said. “We’re not ever talking in this place about the inequality.”

One Democratic senator who worked in law enforcement said the enhanced penalties for criminal mischief could lead to a felony charge for damaging any public property, including a flower bed.

The bill was also amended to create a new crime of “interference with public disorder control.” Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, said it is meant to deal with people who come to protests prepared to counteract crowd control tactics such as tear gas.

The only group registered in favor of the bill is the State Police Officers Council, a union representing state troopers and other law enforcement employed by the state. Other law enforcement groups registered as undecided.

Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, introduced an amendment to add a ban on racial profiling after Republicans rejected that part of Reynolds’ criminal justice proposal. Republican leaders decided Mathis’ amendment wasn’t relevant.

Punishing cities that “defund the police”

Cities and counties that reduce their police budgets would lose most of their state funding, with some exceptions, under a bill that passed the Senate 41-7.

“The bill intention is to prohibit defunding police by our local cities and counties,” said Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire. “Senate Republicans stand with our law enforcement to ensure they are properly funded and have the resources they need to keep our communities safe.”

Ten of the 17 Democrats present joined all 31 Republicans present to support the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, voted against it. On Thursday, he said Republicans forced a political vote, and every member of the Iowa Legislature supports funding police departments.

“We had some folks who obviously had concerns about the potential for Republicans to run ads and try to basically turn that upside down,” Wahls said.

He accused Republican senators of defunding police departments by trying to ban traffic cameras and potentially cutting of a source of funding for local governments.

Wahls also said these bills call into question the Republicans’ commitment to working on criminal justice reform.

The bills now go to the Iowa House for consideration.

On Thursday, Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said there is some interest in these bills among House Republicans, but he wants to make sure there aren’t “unintended consequences.”

“We’re going to want to work with local law enforcement,” Grassley said. “We don’t want to impact our small communities, or communities that may increase their budget and just naturally have to reduce it because of their revenue.”

House Minority Leader Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, said Republican legislators told him the House would not be taking up this bill.

“This bill is political theater,” Prichard said.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter