GOP lawmakers’ actions speak louder than their words on law enforcement

Law enforcement officers line up outside the Iowa Capitol during a protest. (Photo by Pablo Lara via Unsplash)

“Now before we get into this debate tonight, let me be clear. If you support law enforcement — truly support law enforcement, you will be voting ‘yes’ tonight. If you stand up tonight and say you support law enforcement, your words will become meaningless with a ‘no’ vote on this bill. Actions speak louder than words.”Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota

Rep. Jarad Klein’s words were loud and clear when he issued the challenge, above, during debate of the so-called “Back the Blue” legislation that the Iowa House approved last week.

The message was unmistakable to many of the Democrats in the chamber: This bill is coming soon to political attack ads in your district.

That is not a surprising message, considering what we’ve seen all year from the majority Republicans in the Legislature. But it is sad and discouraging, especially given the important bipartisan work last year on issues related to police misconduct and racial inequity.

Eight Democrats voted for the bill, so it can be called bipartisan in that one sense. But Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, lamented that he and other members of the House Black Caucus were not at the table when the bill was crafted.

State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad is a Democrat from Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“We would have been able to give you a whole different perspective. But nobody asked our perspective,” he told Klein during debate. “Nobody came and said, ‘How do you feel?’ ”

Democrats who opposed some of the bill’s reactionary, vaguely worded and jacked-up penalties for crimes related to protests also objected to the characterization that they don’t support law enforcement because they voted against it.

“I do support law enforcement and I will be a ‘no’ on this bill. Because I also support other things, including the right to protest for racial justice and for other issues,” Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, said. “And I really think this bill unnecessarily pits law enforcement against groups like Black Lives Matter and other protesters just at the time when we need to be bringing all of these groups together.”

Both parties have occasionally used the sort of politically polarizing rhetoric that Klein adopted. We heard it often in the 1980s, when lawmakers of both parties escalated penalties for crimes like possession of crack cocaine, that primarily affected people of color. It’s harmful and disappointing to see lawmakers posturing like this instead of looking for common ground.

I’d like to think Iowa voters can and will see through this tactic, but the unfortunate fact is these sorts of attacks tend to be effective in election campaigns.

The law is the law – except when it applies to legislators

Klein said during his opening comments that actions speak louder than words. They do, indeed. He also said this during his closing statement:

State Rep. Jarad Klein is a Republican from Keota. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“If we just ignore, willy-nilly, what laws we’re going to be enforcing in this state, then what the heck are we even doing here? Whether it’s a major piece of legislation, or a minor one, the law is the law and it should be enforced.”

We’ve heard that theme from Republicans often this year. In this case, however, Klein made the statement without a speck of irony, shortly after being informed on the House floor that the debate was proceeding in violation of state law.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, a lawyer, pointed out during debate that the amendment introduced by House Republicans clearly required a correctional impact statement, which indicates the cost to the state of enforcing the new and enhanced crimes in the bill, as well as a statement of the impact on Iowans of color.

“I think these are very important statements for us to review and give consideration to, before we vote on any legislation, that greatly or even at all increases a penalty, or creates a new crime,” she said.

Iowa Code section 2.56 states that any “bill, joint resolution, or amendment which proposes a change in the law which creates a public offense, significantly changes an existing public offense or the penalty for an existing offense, or changes existing sentencing, parole, or probation procedures.”

Klein disputed her reading of the law, relying on a section of the code that says debate shouldn’t be delayed by the need for revisions of correctional impact statements. Other lawyers have told me Wolfe was correct to argue that the impact statement was required before debate on the House amendment, which of course is when it would be most useful.

It should be noted that the correctional impact is particularly relevant in light of the separate debate lawmakers are having over whether Iowa’s prisons are adequately funded and staffed in the wake of last month’s fatal attack on two Anamosa prison employees.

When I asked House Speaker Pat Grassley whether the lack of a correctional impact statement could provide an opening for people who might want to challenge the legislation in court, he indicated the bill was not “fast-tracked” to the governor’s desk (another sign that this was a debate about politics more than policing.) And yet, he also asserted that House Republicans didn’t want to delay the bill.

“You know, the request obviously was made for the statement and I think you know, whether it was requested or it was required within the bill, the decision was that we wanted to keep this process moving. These bills and amendments have been around floating around for several weeks now. And we felt, well, we reached a point in which it was time to take action,” Grassley told reporters.

I’m confused. Is this bill urgent or not? And if Senate Republicans don’t agree with everything in the bill, does that mean they don’t support law enforcement?

As for whether a correctional impact statement was required before debate, Grassley said:  “I’m sure there’s 20 lawyers that have 20 different opinions on that.”

That could be true of many laws approved by the Legislature, including, for example, emergency election laws that local county auditors could now be prosecuted on felony charges for violating. The point is, the law is the law, unless legislators are the ones violating it. Then, it’s a matter of interpretation and a quick insertion of the magic word “notwithstanding” to legalize code violations after the fact.

Where’s the governor?

Gov. Kim Reynolds signs a police reform bill on June 12, 2020, alongside Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds promised last year when she signed the bipartisan policing bill that she would continue to work with both minority advocates and law enforcement on significant issues such as racial profiling by police. True to her word, she proposed provisions dealing with racial profiling and data collection that were recommended by her criminal justice reform advisory board, along with some of the “Back the Blue” provisions.

She didn’t say a word, at least not in public, when Senate Republicans stripped out the racial profiling parts of the bill.

It’s time for her to lead, and that means showing Iowans one can support law enforcement while still protecting the right of citizens to peacefully protest. It’s time for her to stand up not only for police but for justice.