Governor’s task force to study recommendations on racial profiling by police

File photo of Des Moines Police squad car (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ task force on criminal justice will shift its attention toward issues related to racial inequities in policing, including possible legislative proposals to ban racial profiling and traffic stops that improperly target drivers of color.

The move comes just days after the Des Moines City Council adopted an ordinance that bans targeting people for enforcement based on their race. The ordinance also bans “pretextual” traffic stops in which a minor traffic offense like a broken tail light might be used as a pretext for a drug search, particularly in cases where the driver is Black.

The discussion comes amid a national conversation about racial justice and police misconduct following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  Floyd died last month after a police officer was videotaped kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes despite Floyd’s pleas that he couldn’t breathe.

In Congress on Wednesday, a Republican effort to move a racial justice bill to the Senate floor failed after Democrats said the measure was too weak.

The FOCUS task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, will look at the Des Moines ordinance, as well as other local laws in Iowa and laws in other states. It will then prepare recommendations for the 2021 legislative session, Gregg said.

“… In light of recent events, especially the tragic death of George Floyd, the ground has really shifted around the issue of justice in our country and in our state,” Gregg said. “These are issues that members of our committee were already engaged in but I do believe these new developments provide us a new and exceptional opportunity to make meaningful change.”

Thirty to 35 states have some legislation addressing racial profiling and bias in policing, according to the NAACP. Iowa does not.

Betty Andrews, head of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said the issue of unbiased policing holds particular meaning for her.  She said her nephew, Manuel Ellis, died in March in police custody in Tacoma, Washington, and his death has been ruled a homicide. “This really strikes home,” she said.

The FOCUS group includes representatives from state and local law enforcement agencies and social justice organizations like NAACP and Urban Dreams.  The group heard presentations Wednesday on model language from the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice . Nebraska has 20 years of experience in collecting data during officer-initiated traffic stops, including information about the race of the driver.

Racial profiling legislation had been proposed in the Iowa Legislature in 2017 that would have banned racial profiling and pretextual stops as well as required data collection. The legislation had some bipartisan support but did not pass the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate File 2280 could be a starting point for new legislation, Russ Lovell of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP told the panel.

Lovell encouraged all of the committee members to watch a 13-minute video showing 2018 traffic stop by Des Moines police that resulted in a lawsuit claiming racial profiling. The city settled the case brought by Montray Little and Jared Clinton for $75,000 a year ago.

“There’s a good example of a stop that could have easily gone really, really bad,” Lovell said. “… If (Clinton and Little) hadn’t been so deferential to those officers despite the provocative and antagonistic conduct of the officers from the very beginning, you could easily see how that could have resulted in something tragic,” he said.

The panel will also look at models for citizen review boards or commissions and data collection by police.

Don Arp of the Nebraska law enforcement commission cautioned the committee to keep the value of data collection on traffics stops in perspective.  “If you’re relying on a data system to find racial profiling, it’s not going to find it,” he said.  What data collection will do is give insight that there may be reasons for further investigation into a particular officer or system.

“It’s a good place to start,” Arp said.

Reynolds appointed the FOCUS group in November 2019.  The group has spent most of its time on issues related to the corrections system, including efforts to minimize barriers to employment for people who complete prison sentences. Legislation approved this year on professional licensing included some of the group’s recommendations aimed at allowing people to retain or regain licenses after a criminal offense that is not related to the conduct of their job.

Members have also encouraged the governor to move forward with automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.  Sam Langholz, the governor’s senior legal counsel, confirmed during the meeting that his staff is working on language for an executive order on restoration of voting rights, but offered no new details on the timing or content of the order.

The FOCUS group met via video conference. Gregg said the group will hold meetings with time for public comment and potentially meet in person in locations around the state this summer as schedules and COVID-19 allow.