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)
A version of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ controversial “Back the Blue” bill is moving through the Senate, but the ban on racial profiling that was part of the initial proposal is now gone.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday evening to advance Senate File 497, marking it safe ahead of Friday’s legislative deadline. The bill would introduce higher penalties for some crimes and create an avenue for law enforcement officers to pursue civil remedies against civilians who file a false complaint against them. It would also grant civil immunity to drivers who accidentally hit protesters in the street.
“The intent is to make the job of our law enforcement people simpler and safer,” said Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, who led floor debate on the legislation.
Several elements of the bill were taken directly from the governor’s “Back the Blue” proposal. However, the Senate bill does not include the racial-profiling ban and the data collection recommended by Reynolds’ FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform. A separate bill on racial profiling was introduced but not considered by a subcommittee in the House or Senate.
“That was a simple proposal,” Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, told Republican colleagues. “The governor wanted it — the governor! You don’t even respect what she wants.”
Several other parts of the original “Back the Blue” proposal were excluded from this bill, including a provision that would prevent municipalities from decreasing police budgets, and another provision that would establish as a crime “bias-motivated harassment” against police officers or other public servants.
Lawmakers reflect on 2020 protests in discussion of bill
Iowans across the state gathered in the summer of 2020 to protest police brutality and racism, a movement spurred by the police killing of George Floyd. Iowa lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill in June to ban chokeholds, revoke certifications for law enforcement officers who commit serious misconduct and require more training on bias and de-escalation. At the time, several lawmakers called it a “good start.”
On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, called Senate File 149 a “huge disappointment” after the 2020 legislation. “You have broken your promise to Iowans that thought we would act,” said Bolkcom.
Under the new bill, several protest-related crimes like unlawful assembly, criminal mischief or disorderly conduct would have more severe penalties. Individuals arrested for those crimes would be held in jail for at least 24 hours, which Garrett called a “cooling-off period.”
The legislation would also exempt drivers from civil liability if they accidentally hit protesters with their vehicle, as a driver for Reynolds did in June.
Democrats objected strongly to the legislation in Wednesday’s committee.
Bisignano spoke about the “peaceful summer” of protests around Des Moines. He recalled a diverse group of people gathering to protest police brutality and racism, including “old hippies” like him who remembered civil rights protests of the 1960s.
“I take this (bill) as an assault on my district and my city,” Bisignano said.
Garrett responded that the bill was not meant to restrict First Amendment rights, but is intended to focus on criminal activity that does not constitute free speech.
“(The First Amendment) doesn’t protect your right to go out and burn your neighbor’s property, assault your neighbor, loot your neighbor’s store,” he said.
Garrett emphasized the importance of supporting police in his closing statement.
“We don’t have a civil society if we don’t have protection from the bad guys, from the criminals,” he said.
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