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State Government News

Iowa House Votes To Expand Police Protections, Raise Penalties For Protest-Related Offenses

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John Pemble
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IPR file
The Iowa House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday evening that expands protections for police and raises penalties for protest-related offenses.

The Iowa House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday evening that expands protections for police, raises penalties for protest-related crimes, and makes other wide-ranging changes related to law enforcement.

The bill would put a qualified immunity standard into state law and criminalize actions taken by some racial justice protesters. It also deals with some employment-related issues for law enforcement officers, and prohibits cities from discouraging the enforcement of laws, among other provisions.

“We listened to our courageous heroes in law enforcement and we took action,” said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota. “We rely on these men and women every day to keep us safe. They have our backs, and with this piece of legislation here today, we can show them that we have their back, too.”

The bill includes some pieces of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed “Back the Blue Act,” as well as some policy passed by the Senate, and some developed by the House.

Some Democrats said they’re concerned higher penalties for protest-related crimes will have a chilling effect on lawful protest, and that the qualified immunity language could protect bad law enforcement officers.

Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said the bill “unnecessarily pits” racial justice protesters against law enforcement, when everyone needs to come together.

“They know they need the public’s trust and confidence to do their job safely and effectively,” Bohannan said. “But making law enforcement officers immune from clearly egregious misconduct is going to further undermine public trust in law enforcement just at the time when we need to rebuild that trust.”

The bill also includes a provision that prohibits racial discrimination by law enforcement. But it does not require data collection on police stops as a way to prevent racial profiling. That was part of Reynolds’ policing bill that never got a hearing in the Iowa Legislature.

Legislators who have worked in law enforcement—two Republicans and one Democrat—spoke in favor of the bill.

Rep. Jon Thorup, R-Knoxville, is an Iowa State Trooper. He said he’s happy to work nights and weekends and in bad weather, and to face potentially dangerous situations, but he asked lawmakers to “just have my back.”

He said he believes the qualified immunity language in the bill won’t protect bad cops. Instead, he said it will allow officers to focus on dealing with immediate dangers rather than worrying about “getting in trouble with management.”

“We only have seconds to make these decisions out there,” Thorup said. “…Attorneys and judges have hours, management has hours, weeks, months to decide if what we did was right or wrong.”

Klein, the lead lawmaker on this bill, also said the legislation addresses concerns raised by his constituents about racial justice protests.

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, often tried to help de-escalate protests last spring and summer. He said he would’ve like to have input as the bill was being crafted, just like he did last year when the legislature unanimously passed a bill aimed at preventing police misconduct.

“When are we going to start talking to one another?” Abdul-Samad asked. “When we decide to craft laws that affect this state, and especially different minority groups, when are we going to start talking instead of just putting bills out there? That’s what we have to begin to do. And I do support police officers. I support law enforcement, but also support the communities that are in pain. And they have suffered, because we always react instead of getting proactive.”

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, said she is concerned about the potential for increasing racial disparities in Iowa’s criminal justice system by increasing penalties and creating new crimes. Wolfe said she talked with her local sheriff and police chief and told them she supports them, but not this bill.

“I can’t vote yes on a bill that targets a specific population of Iowans, and in my opinion, for no reason other than to teach them a lesson, send them a message, which is basically, ‘sit down and shut up,’” Wolfe said.

The bill passed 63 to 30, with eight Democrats joining most Republicans to vote yes. Two Republicans voted against the bill along with a majority of Democrats.

The bill now goes to the Iowa Senate for consideration.