Polk County officials say curfew is legal, but activists argue it creates more issues

Des Moines police line a guard rail blocking access to the front of the Des Moines Police Department after two nights of protests at the spot in May 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In light of the protests in Des Moines, the Polk County Board of Supervisors held an emergency meeting on Sunday, imposing an indefinite curfew on residents from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The order was issued following a request from local law enforcement due to the expectation that there would be another “violent night” in Des Moines, said Matt McCoy, chairman of the Polk County Board of Supervisors. 

Protesters by Merle Hay Mall held up signs as traffic drove by. Iowans rallied to protest the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo by: Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Sunday’s electronic meeting was held with Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, City Attorney Jeff Lester, City Manager Scott Sanders and the Polk County Board of Supervisors, McCoy said. 

Public meetings typically require at least 24-hour notice, but it was held without that notification due to the “immediate threat” to health and safety, according to the order.

“It is a drastic measure for drastic events,” McCoy said.

Since Friday, protests have sprung up across Des Moines in response to the  death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. While most of the protests and vigils have been peaceful, some demonstrators have broken windows and spray-painted buildings once night has fallen.

Des Moines officers have shown a heavy presence at some of the protest sites, using pepper spray and rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse crowds.

The curfew order is intended to allow peaceful protests, while also trying to help officers who are responding to some of the unrest and property damage in Des Moines, McCoy said. 

He added that officers have limited resources and it’s difficult to respond to multiple sites, such as Merle Hay Mall and downtown Des Moines. The COVID-19 pandemic adds another element of stress for law enforcement, he said.

“We have limited police resources and we had everyone working last night,” McCoy said.

Polk County’s curfew order cites an Iowa law that gives counties the power to “perform any function it deems appropriate to protect and preserve the rights, privileges, and property of the county or of its residents, and to preserve and improve the peace, safety, health, welfare, comfort, and convenience of its residents.”

However, the Code of Iowa also states that a county’s power is “limited” by the Iowa Constitution and laws of general assembly. Under the state’s Constitution, residents have the right to assemble for the common good, make their opinions known to lawmakers and share grievances.

McCoy said he believes protesters still have the right to publicly share their concerns, but he said it should be done in a “peaceful” manner like the organized vigil in Union Park on Sunday.

“We’ve got to maximize our ability to respond to these events to protect life and safety,” McCoy said. “It is not lost on us that these people that are organizing these attacks know when and where and how to show up. When these people were arrested, a lot of them had hammers in their backpacks. They knew they were going to be busting windows. This is not something that we can take lightly.”

So far, the majority of protests have been in Des Moines, but McCoy said the board issued a county-wide order after consultation with law enforcement. Places like the Merle Hay Mall area fall under several city jurisdictions such as Urbandale and Des Moines, making it difficult to target specific areas, McCoy said.

On social media, some activists have criticized Polk County for not issuing a stay-at-home order for the COVID-19 pandemic. But McCoy said the governor’s proclamations superseded the county’s power.

The county’s curfew order was issued in consultation with Reynolds’ office, McCoy said.

Polk County residents who are conducting normal business, such as driving or walking their dogs, shouldn’t expect to be confronted by law enforcement, McCoy said. 

The curfew focuses on people who are “unlawfully” gathering and officers will evaluate each situation on a case-by-case basis, McCoy said.

“We did not expect, nor do we want to tolerate, having Merle Hay Mall trashed or having it looted or having Southridge looted. That just can’t happen in a civil society,” McCoy said. “If you start allowing that to happen, then anarchy does rule and we just don’t have any tolerance for the destruction of business owners’  property or belongings.”

The ACLU of Iowa has condemned Polk County’s curfew, issuing a statement describing it as overly broad and suggesting it allows officers to be selective in their arrests.

Protesters hold up signs near Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines on May 31, 2020. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Mark Stringer, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, issued a statement  saying the order bars journalists from covering events and allows officers to be biased in enforcing the order.

“We call on the Polk County Board of Supervisors, county leaders, and law enforcement to listen, not instigate or escalate, to protect protesters’ rights, and to take meaningful action on longstanding concerns of black and brown communities such as considering public health and safety strategies that do not rely on or fund police over pressing needs,” Stringer said in the statement.