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Reynolds Signs Law Enhancing Penalties For Protest-Related Offenses, Expanding Police Protections

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a policing bill into law Thursday at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.
Katarina Sostaric
Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a policing bill into law Thursday at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a billinto law Thursday that raises penalties for protest-related offenses, puts qualified immunity language into state law, expands some police protections, and makes it illegal to not stop for an unmarked police car.

She signed the bill at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, surrounded by law enforcement officers.

“And I want you to know that your governor, your legislature and your state stand behind you,” Reynolds said. “Today, I am honored to sign the Back the Blue Act, which sends that message loud and clear.”

ILEA Director Judy Bradshaw called it “one of the most significant bills to impact and support law enforcement.”

“It’s truly a historical moment for law enforcement and the citizens of Iowa,” Bradshaw said.

Reynolds, a Republican, proposed a wide-ranging policing bill she called the “Back the Blue Act” at the start of the 2021 legislative session. The Republican-led legislature did not advance her proposal, and it never held any hearings on the part of Reynolds’ bill that would ban racial profiling by law enforcement and collect data on police stops. But lawmakers adopted parts of Reynolds’ bill and added their own ideas.

Black Democratic leaders in the state accused Reynolds of breaking her promise to do more to address racial injustice.

Reynolds pointed to a portion of the bill that prohibits discrimination by local government employees, and that establishes a complaint process related to that. And she said Thursday she will propose a standalone anti-racial profiling bill next session.

“Trust has been broken,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair and Legislative Black Caucus member Ross Wilburn. “It will take a significant effort to bring that forward.”

Wilburn said this is a step backward from last summer, when the legislatureunanimously passed a police accountability bill.

Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, said the new policing law sends a terrible message.

“I think it’s important that we continue to remember that chokeholds and police brutality are still out there,” Thede said. “If we don’t begin to challenge the things that are happening out there, we’re going to see more and more and more of this.”

The bill’s path through the legislature

Lawmakers considered several different policing bills throughout the legislative session, ultimately landing on one lengthy bill.

The House of Representatives passed the final version of the bill 56-35. Two House Democrats joined most Republicans in voting for the bill, and two Republicans joined most Democrats to vote against it. The Iowa Senate passed the bill 27-18, with all Republicans present voting in favor and all Democrats voting against it.

During Senate debate in May, Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said he thinks raising penalties will deter the kind of violence seen at a small number of last summer’s racial justice protests.

“We owe it to our constituents,” Garrett said. “We owe it to our law enforcement people. We owe it to people that have businesses that are in jeopardy of being damaged and looted. We owe it to the people of Iowa to do the very best we can to stop this activity.”

Some lawmakers from both parties expressed disappointment that the final version of the bill did not include a provision that would require law enforcement agencies to pay out sick leave to retired officers, who could then use the money for health insurance costs. Senate Republicans wanted that to be removed from the bill.

Democratic Sen. Kevin Kinney of Oxford, who is also a retired sheriff’s deputy, said there are some good law enforcement protections in the bill, but some parts will hurt Iowans.

“Charging someone for a felony when it should be a simple misdemeanor, but now they are charged with a felony, where it’s going to possibly affect their housing, their schooling, their ability [to get] jobs—to be strapped with this, is crazy,” Kinney said. “This doesn’t even make sense.”

Democrats also criticized the bill because nonpartisan analystsexpect raising penalties for protest-related offenses will disproportionately impact Black Iowans.

Tabatha Abu El-Haj, a law professor at Drexel University, said the new and enhanced penalties for protest-related offenses—combined with language that she said is not clear enough—may have a chilling effect on lawful protests.

“In general, in the First Amendment context, the law sort of presumes that anything that’s vague and ambiguous will chill First Amendment activity, to the degree that there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether you could or couldn’t be arrested because the statutes are difficult to parse,” she said.

Abu El-Haj said policy makers should focus on making sure people who are participating in lawful protests are clearly protected from being charged with crimes like unlawful assembly and rioting. She said the “vast bulk” of charges related to protests get dismissed.

“It might be reasonable in the abstract to have these criminal laws,” she said. “But if they’re being used against people who later, prosecutors say, ‘We can’t possibly actually get a conviction,’ tells me that they’re being abused to get people off the streets when they are exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Republican lawmakers have said the new law is not intended to limit “peaceful” protests.

“We encourage First Amendment rights to protest peacefully,” Reynolds said. “But if you break the law, you’re going to be held accountable.”

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter