Senate passes ‘Back the Blue’ bill that Democrats say will worsen racial disparity

By: - May 17, 2021 6:00 pm

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)

The GOP majority in the Iowa Senate sent amended “Back the Blue” legislation back to the House with enhanced criminal penalties that Democrats said would worsen racial disparities in incarcerations.

Senate File 342 returns the House for consideration weeks after House Speaker Pat Grassley predicted back-and-forth between the chambers. 

The bill addresses some police benefits and provides qualified immunity to protect officers against lawsuits in some cases. It also raises penalties for rioting and other crimes associated with last year’s protests after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

The Senate amendments would add active and retired law officers and prosecutors to a program that provides officers’ an alternative postal address for safety reasons; add qualified immunity language to several code sections; amend “bill of rights language” for officers and other emergency personnel; allow peace officers to participate in a certain group health insurance plan; deny local governments any state aid if they violate the new legislation; amend the definition of “assault” to include pointing a laser at someone; and expand the definition of eluding officers.

Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, and Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, both objected to strengthening penalties for offenses such as rioting and eluding officers. That could disproportionately affect members of racial minorities because they have been jailed at a higher rate than others, they said.

Boulton offered an amendment, which was defeated, that would have eliminated the enhanced or new criminal penalties.

“When we start stretching these definitions and stretching the penalties, we start to see some very unfair implications in our communities,” Boulton said. “I don’t think any of us wants to see a situation where a senior skip day turns into a felony. I don’t think we want to see situations where tailgating activities become felonies, simply based on the eye of the law enforcement officer or the animosity between different communities within a small county.” 

Hogg asked several GOP lawmakers if they considered the data on the disproportionate number of minorities in Iowa’s prisons before deciding to stiffen penalties for what he called “minor offenses.” Hogg said state data shows that Blacks make up 4.1% of Iowa’s population but account for 71% of the people in prison or on probation.

The legislation would in some case turn two-year sentences into five years, worsening the racial disparities, Hogg contended. 

When Hogg asked several GOP senators what they had done to address the disparity, none answered him directly. A few declined to take his questions on the floor. 

Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, said it’s a matter of serving time for offenses, regardless of race.

“If someone commits a crime, and they are charged with that crime and convicted of that crime, then they serve the time or suffer the consequences of that crime,” Cournoyer told Hogg in response to a question. 

Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired deputy sheriff, said, “The policy in this bill is going to hurt people in our communities.” Charging people with felonies that should be simple misdemeanors could make it hard for the offenders to get a job or housing, he said.  

Kinney and other Democrats objected to a felony charge for eluding officers, noting that some caution their own family members not to stop for an unmarked vehicle or one that looks suspicious. 

“I drove an unmarked car for 13 years,” Kinney said. “I didn’t wear a uniform for 13 years. I knew that if I went to stop someone and they didn’t stop, they couldn’t be charged with eluding. I’ve told my wife, I’ve told my daughter, that if you’re out on the interstate or if you’re on a rural road, and someone goes to stop you, you call 911 and you go someplace that’s lit so you can see and there are other people around. To be charged with eluding for this is crazy.”

Democrats also criticized the bill for not addressing benefits such as retirement and health insurance that police officers told them were key needs.

The bill does not ban racial profiling or traffic-stop data collection, key recommendations from GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds’ task force on police issues.

Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs, a state criminal investigator who managed the bill, said the Democrats’ proposed amendments would have amounted to “Back the Blue lite,” by weakening the qualified immunity that police sought. 

Dawson called the Democrats’ assertion that benefits such as sick leave were of primary importance “insulting” to officers.

“The top priority always has been cementing qualified immunity because of what is going on at the federal level. I think it’s insulting to law enforcement to say their top primary goal and this individual ‘Back the Blue’ bill is just to get (Sick Leave Insurance Program) benefits,” Dawson said. 

The bill also protects officers’ personal information and allows police to seek damages against people or organizations who make false complaints.

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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.