Reynolds signs ‘Back the Blue’ law, raising riot penalties and adding police protections

By: - June 17, 2021 3:37 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds visited the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Johnston to sign a “Back the Blue” act into law. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a policing law Thursday that will increase penalties for protest-related crimes and grant qualified immunity to police officers.

The bill-signing took place at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Johnston. Reynolds was flanked on all sides by uniformed officers-in-training, standing at attention with their hands behind their backs.

“Like so many Iowans, I was raised to be grateful to the heroes that patrol our streets at great personal risk and sacrifice,” Reynolds told the cadets. “Tragically, this fundamental and wholesome part of America’s culture is now under vicious attack.”

Before signing the bill, Reynolds recalled last summer’s nationwide racial justice protests. She said “lawless mobs” of rioters and looters interrupted peaceful events.

“If you riot, if you loot, if you attack our law officers, then you will be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” she said. “The public peace is too important and the safety of our officers too precious to tolerate destructive behavior.”

Reynolds also signed a law that creates a new state fund for law enforcement equipment. The state allocated $5 million to the fund in the upcoming fiscal year.

Democrats say the bill is a step backward

Thursday’s bill-signing comes one year after lawmakers gathered and unanimously passed a policing bill to ban chokeholds and revoke certifications from officers with serious misconduct violations. Lawmakers said in June 2020 that the “More Perfect Union” Act was a first step toward criminal justice reform in Iowa. 

What does the new policing law do?

  • Raises penalties for rioting and other protest-related crimes
  • Provides qualified immunity to protect officers against lawsuits in some cases
  • Adds active and retired law officers and prosecutors to a program that provides officers an alternative postal address for safety reasons
  • Adds qualified immunity language to several code sections
  • Amends “bill of rights” language for officers and other emergency personnel
  • Allows peace officers to participate in a certain group health insurance plan
  • Denies local governments any state aid if they violate the new legislation
  • Amends the definition of “assault” to include pointing a laser at someone
  • Expands the definition of eluding officers to include unmarked cars

Reynolds touted Thursday’s “Back the Blue” law as a continuation of that legislation.

“There’s no contradiction between steadfast support for honorable and selfless police officers the vast majority and a commitment to improving policing,” she said.

Democrats, including members of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus, disagreed. 

State Representative Ross Wilburn of Ames is also chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Legislature)

“Instead of furthering an important discussion on (how to) end racial profiling measures and modernizing our public safety departments, Governor Reynolds took a giant step backwards,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said.

A governor-appointed criminal justice task force recommended in October that police officers should record the race or ethnicity of the people they stop. Legislative Republicans did not include the recommendation in their versions of the bill.

Reynolds noted that the law does prohibit officers from considering race or ethnicity while enforcing laws, though no data would be collected. It also creates a new pathway for citizens to file complaints if they feel that they have been discriminated against.

Reynolds said she had met with Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews and promised to propose the racial profiling ban as a “standalone” bill in the next legislative session. But Rep. Wilburn, D-Ames, said the “trust has been broken” after Reynolds and legislative Republicans dropped the racial profiling ban from this year’s legislation.

“This session, every opportunity existed to come together…,” added House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights. “I don’t know why a promise she makes now would be kept any more than a promise she made last summer.”

Democrats said they would push for more criminal justice reform and a racial profiling ban. Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, encouraged young people of color to stay involved in politics and demand change from their legislators.

“As a Black caucus, as a Democratic caucus, we are going to use the minority vote as a power weapon,” Gaines said.

Law changes penalties for protest-related crimes, gives officers qualified immunity

One of the most controversial parts of the Back the Blue law are changes to Iowa’s criminal code that introduce higher penalties for protest-related crimes, like unlawful assembly, disorderly conduct or rioting.

Democrats objected to the enhanced penalties in floor debate on the legislation, arguing that it could have a chilling effect on lawful protesters. Democrats also pointed toward a nonpartisan analysis of the bill that found that the law would disproportionately affect Black Iowans. In fiscal year 2020, 71% of people incarcerated for a riot crime were African-American. Less than 5% of adult Iowans are African-American.

When asked Thursday about the disproportionate impact the new penalties would have on communities of color, Reynolds said individuals shouldn’t commit crimes.

Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke to cadets at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Johnston after signing “Back the Blue” legislation into law. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch).

“Don’t break the law and it won’t apply to you,” Reynolds said. 

Another controversial provision: The bill would give “qualified immunity” to police officers. That means an individual suing a police officer would need to prove that the officer violated their rights, and that the officer broke a law that was “clearly established.”

Reynolds said the bill would protect officers against “bad-faith actors, eager to exploit reasonable, split-second decisions made in very dynamic situations.”

Democrats in the Statehouse said the qualified immunity standard was widely criticized and could give officers protection in even “egregious” situations

It’s been a big week for bill-signings in Iowa. Gov. Kim Reynolds also signed into law a major tax cut and several other bills:

  • The Health and Human Services budget will appropriate $2.047 billion from the General Fund to the Department on Aging, the Department of Public Health, Department of Human Services and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
  • House File 524 requires drivers to return to the scene of an accident, if they think the crash could have caused an injury. If they’ve already left the scene, they must immediately contact emergency services.
  • House File 302 allows families to gradually phase out of state child care assistance if their income rises.
  • House File 313 prohibits local governments from fining children who occasionally operate a business (like a lemonade stand).

Reynolds vetoed Senate File 567, a bill that would have allowed mortgage bankers to impose some fees on borrowers.

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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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