Panel: Lawmakers should set penalties for police bias

By: - October 15, 2020 4:54 pm

(Photo via Commonwealth of Massachusetts)

State lawmakers should decide the penalties for police departments and officers who violate citizens’ rights in cases that show bias, a state panel decided informally Thursday. 

The FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform plans to meet next week to finish its recommendations to the state before the Iowa Summit on Justice & Disparities on Oct. 29. 

The panel has been meeting for months amid the fallout of several high-profile police cases nationally, including the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and local protests of systemic bias in Iowa policing. 

Members have focused on several actions based in part on Nebraska laws that are 20 years old and can be adapted to Iowa, said Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, who leads the committee. 

Daniel Zeno, lobbyist for the ACLU of Iowa, said the panel should consider recommending that lawmakers decide what penalties should be applied. Gregg agreed, though he added that he doesn’t want it to look like the panel was dodging the question. 

Zeno said the panel members don’t agree on the issue. “There is some disagreement about, should they be civil remedies or criminal remedies? I think one option for the task force to consider is recommending that the Legislature grapple with what should be the remedy,” Zeno said.

“I think where we are now is there’s lots of differing opinions and positions about what the penalty should be, and not a whole lot of agreement. And it’s a really important issue,” he added.

The panel’s major recommendations, to be finalized next week, include: 

  • The state should adopt a statutory ban on disparate treatment in law enforcement activities and the delivery of police services, noting that “racially discriminatory, pretextual stops” are unconstitutional and prohibited based on U.S. Supreme Court and Iowa Supreme Court decisions. Racial profiling already is banned in 16 states, the panel said, and the federal government banned its law enforcement from profiling starting in 2003. “Race and other individual demographics simply should not be a factor in police action outside of situations involving a description of a specific suspect, and Iowa law should reflect that principle,” the FOCUS panel’s draft report reads. 
  • Lawmakers should ban disparate treatment based on race, creed, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or other identifiable characteristics, the panel wrote.
  • Law enforcement agencies should be required to establish automated data collection on traffic stops. The data would include race information, voluntarily provided by drivers when they renew their licenses, embedded drivers’ records. For any traffic stop in which an individual is identified, officers would record, at a minimum, the nature of the alleged violation, whether a warning or citation was issued, whether an arrest was made, and whether there was a search, under the panel’s proposal. 
  • A new state panel would advise on rules for collection, compilation and reporting on police traffic stops, and analyze profiling across the state. 
  • The state should provide grants to help law enforcement agencies conduct independent research on racial disparities in traffic stops in their departments. Reports should be made public and shared with the Justice and Community Policing Advisory Board.

Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, tried unsuccessfully to add language governing the data collection regarding the length of police stops, and vowed to lobby state lawmakers on the issue. “Duration (of police stops) has been amplified when it comes to racial profiling and disparate treatment and biased policing,” Andrews said, adding that the length of a stop can be humiliating in some cases. 

Stephan Bayens, commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, questioned the idea. “I don’t know what we’re hoping to gain from (recording the) duration,” Bayens said. “It could change radically based on whether a tow truck was called, whether we were waiting for, if there were kids in the car, for a family member to come and pick up the kids in the car. There are so many variables.”

Bayens agreed with Andrews that the duration of a stop can raise constitutional concerns. “But those constitutional concerns should be addressed in a criminal case with a defense lawyer, not necessarily at a kind of macro level with just broad anonymized data,” Bayens added.

Gregg said the panel will develop a final report after next week’s concluding discussions.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.