Governor’s ‘Back the Blue’ bill faces opposition from all sides

By: - February 6, 2021 11:00 am

A Des Moines woman who was the subject of repeated acts of domestic violence is suing the city’s police department, alleging officers failed to arrest her attacker as required by state law. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)

A new policing bill faces opposition from all sides, from the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement to several law enforcement organizations.

Reynolds’ proposal, Senate Study Bill 1140, was introduced in the Iowa Senate this week. The 28-page bill would forbid police officers from treating civilians differently based on personal characteristics, including race. It would also require law enforcement agencies to keep data on police stops and race.

These proposals come from Reynolds’ FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform, which spent months of 2020 developing recommendations for Iowa’s criminal justice system. Reynolds lauded the committee in October, when it submitted its final report on the issue of racist policing.

“Taken together, these recommendations would represent another historic step forward in Iowa’s leadership in civil rights and criminal justice reform,” Reynolds said at the time. “I look forward to reviewing the committee’s recommendations as I lay out my 2021 legislative agenda and move criminal justice reform forward.”

However, Senate Study Bill 1140, which Reynolds named the “Back the Blue Act,” goes beyond just introducing a racial profiling ban. The legislation also:

  • Introduces harsher punishments for some crimes;
  • Requires a 24-hour hold time for individuals arrested for some crimes;
  • Asserts the right for police officers to “pursue civil remedies” against someone who injures or files a false complaint against them;
  • Prevents cities in Iowa from decreasing their police budgets;
  • And introduces “bias-motivated harassment” to denote the harassment of a police officer due to their profession.

“The bill will make clear that if you riot or attack our men and women in uniform, you will be punished. We won’t stand for it,” Reynolds said in her January Condition of the State address. She called the proposal “a bill that protects law enforcement and continues our march toward racial justice.”

But early opposition to the bill’s first draft has mounted. Of over a dozen groups which had registered to lobby on the bill as of Friday, just one was in favor: the governor’s office.

Included in the opposition are groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which released a scathing statement on the proposed legislation.

“This bill is wholly inconsistent with our democracy’s history, our values as Iowans, and our U.S. and Iowa Constitutions,” ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer said in a news release Wednesday.

Stringer said the bill would be a “full-blown assault on Iowans’ fundamental rights to free speech and assembly.” 

One of the ACLU’s concerns is the 24-hour hold. Under the legislation, those arrested for criminal mischief, rioting, unlawful assembly or disorderly conduct would be held in jail for 24 hours, unless the court finds that the individual is “not likely to immediately resume the criminal behavior.”

Pete McRoberts, a lobbyist for the ACLU, gave the example of someone arrested for making noise outside a public building.

“Literally, all the government has to do if this bill becomes law is claim a person made a loud noise outside … and that people inside didn’t like it,” McRoberts wrote in an email. “The government just needs to make the claim — not prove it —  and that person goes to jail without ever being convicted of a crime.”

McRoberts also noted that the proposed bill has some legal ambiguities which might make it more difficult for a victim of racial profiling to pursue a case against law enforcement.

Leaders of the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement spoke out about the bill even before the official text was published. Organizer Jaylen Cavil told the Iowa Capital Dispatch in January that the group intended to “oppose this every step of the way.” 

“(It) goes against everything conservatives say they believe in, which is local control,” Cavil said of the provision against decreasing police budgets. “I think it’s illegal. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. And I view it as an attack against us, against all Black people in the state of Iowa.”

Several law enforcement groups have also registered in opposition to the “Back the Blue Act.” The Iowa Police Chief Association, the Iowa Peace Officers Association and the Iowa State Police Association have all registered in opposition to the bill. 

Steve Hanson, president of the Iowa State Police Association, said the group was in contact with the governor’s office about making changes to the proposed legislation.

“There are some things in the bill that we agree with, and some things in the bill that we don’t agree with,” Hanson said, declining to go into specifics on Friday afternoon. “We’re looking forward to working with the governor’s staff and legislators and just going forward on it.”

Senate Study Bill 1140 has not yet been considered by a subcommittee, but it already stands in contrast to a bipartisan policing bill passed last June with unanimous support. Known as the “More Perfect Union Act,” the bill banned the use of police chokeholds and revoked law enforcement certifications from officers fired for serious misconduct. The bill was a collaboration between the Iowa Black Caucus, Reynolds and other House members.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, told reporters Thursday that he was disappointed that the “Back the Blue Act” was written without bipartisan discussion.

“We had a fantastic bipartisan cooperation this past summer … to take the first step on reforming Iowa’s criminal justice laws,” Wahls said. “For Republicans to now abandon that process when we’re trying to get ready to take that next step does not exactly build a lot of confidence.”

Senate Study Bill 1140 has been referred to a Judiciary subcommittee for consideration.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Reporter Katie Akin began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.

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