Iowa Senate passes two bills to increase riot penalties and prevent police defunding

By: - March 10, 2021 4:50 pm

Police form a line to disallow access for a protest march through Center City on June 1, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Demonstrations have erupted all across the country in response to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while in police custody. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The Iowa Senate passed two policing bills Wednesday that would introduce new penalties for riot-related crimes, prevent Iowa cities and counties from decreasing police budgets and give immunity to drivers who accidentally hit protesters in the street.

The bills represented some parts of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “Back the Blue Act.” Lawmakers split the governor’s proposal into several bills but they have not considered a key part of the proposal: a ban on racial profiling by police.

Defunding the police = no state funding

Iowa cities and counties would lose state funds if they decrease law enforcement budgets under Senate File 479, which the Senate voted for 41-7.

The bill outlines a few specific reasons that a “local entity” may decrease its police budget. If a budget decrease does not fall under one of those permitted categories, the city or county could lose its state funding.

“We need law enforcement to keep us safe,” Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, said. “We need to appreciate them and ensure that they have the resources and support they need.”

The reasons a city would be allowed to decrease its police budget are:

  1. The previous year budget included large one-time purchases, like new equipment or vehicles,
  2. If a senior police officer is replaced with new hires who have lower salaries,
  3. If several agencies, jails or communications services merge, resulting in lower costs,
  4. Or if the population of that jurisdiction decreases.

Ten Democrats voted in favor of the bill. Seven voted against, including Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, who argued that the bill could prevent law enforcement agencies from making their processes more efficient.

“Nobody in this body wants to defund the police, but let’s take a more intelligent and thoughtful approach here,” he said. “Don’t hamstring city governments in ways that remove the incentive for innovation.”

Riot-related crimes would have steeper penalties

Senate File 534 would make several significant changes to Iowa’s criminal law surrounding protests and rioting. 

As in Reynolds’ “Back the Blue Act,” charges for crimes related to rioting criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, unlawful assembly would include longer jail time and higher fines. The bill also introduces a mandatory 24-hour hold for someone arrested for these crimes, which floor leader Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, called a “cooling-off period.”

“That’s why we’ve got these provisions that we’ve got in this bill … to make the penalties enough that people will think twice about them,” Garrett said. “We need people to obey the law.”

The bill would also create a new section of Iowa code to deal with drivers who accidentally hit protesters blocking the road. If a driver is “exercising due care” when they hit and injure a protester, that driver will be immune from civil liability for those injuries. This was not included in the Back the Blue Act.

Democrats offered changes to the bill. Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, proposed an amendment to require two subsequent arrests before an individual was held in jail for 24 hours. The penalty would be one degree higher if the individual was arrested a second time.

“I just think we have to look and use some common sense in how we are forming this piece of legislation so we are fair to these people,” Kinney said.

The amendment failed, 17-31.

Garrett cited his concerns with the 2020 protests in his closing statement on the legislation. He said that the increased penalties would help law enforcement officers when dealing with “a riot like that.” 

“The least we can do is do the best we can to provide some reasonable penalties … to discourage people from the kind of activity that we saw here and all over the country last summer,” he said.

The Senate voted 31-17 to move the bill.

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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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