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DES MOINES — The Iowa House unanimously approved legislation Wednesday creating a study of peace officer discipline, but then split mostly along party lines when it morphed into a sweeping bill that would offer qualified immunity to law enforcement, protect drivers who run into protesters blocking a highway from civil liability, withhold state funds from communities that defund the police and add or increase penalties for a variety of crimes.
The choice whether to vote for the bill that covered tinted windows, blocking sidewalks, pension protection and exemption from public records for civilian employees of law enforcement agencies was simple, according to Senate File 342 sponsor Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota.
“Let me be clear: If you support law enforcement, truly support law enforcement, you will be voting ‘yes’ tonight,” he said. “If you stand up and say you support law enforcement, your words will become meaningless with a ‘no’ vote. Actions speak louder than words.”
That was “insulting and cynical” to voters to simplify a complicated issue that way, Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, responded. “I support law enforcement. Democrats support law enforcement. Some of us will be voting against this bill.”
There were many good things in the bill, Konfrst said, but it could have been made better if it continued the “spirit and unity of last summer’s plan for a More Perfect Union legislation unanimously approved by the House and Senate. “It supported law enforcement, pushes for justice and fights for equity.”
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, who worked to defuse tensions during protests outside the Capitol last year after the death of George Floyd, also called for continuing the spirit of the More Perfect Union legislation. It banned police from using chokeholds in most cases, required training for bias and de-escalation techniques, and prohibited law enforcement agencies from hiring people fired from other agencies for serious misconduct.
It succeeded because lawmakers worked together, Abdul-Samad said. He would have liked to have the NAACP, LULAC and other groups representing Iowa minorities involved in the writing of SF 342 “so we could pull some things (and) add some things that would have made it better.”
Law enforcement officers in the House appreciated having input into the bill that will protect them not only from physical attacks, but legal attacks, too, said Rep. Jon Thorup, R-Knoxville, an Iowa State Patrol trooper. The qualified immunity provisions won’t protect bad cops, as some had said in opposing the bill.
“They don’t last long. They get caught doing the wrong things,” Thorup said. “But one thing officers worry about is getting sued. We only have seconds to make decisions. Attorneys and judges have hours. Management has hours, weeks, months.”
The sick leave, worker compensation, pension and confidentiality provisions will help recruitment and retention, according to Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, who spent 27 years in law enforcement.
He warned some of the increases in the severity of penalties for crimes included in the bill may need to be addressed to avoid unintended consequences.
What I came down to, Klein said, was that Iowans “rely on these men and women that have our backs, and with this piece of legislation today, we can show them that we have their back, too.”
Maybe not, warned Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton. If enacted, which she assumed it will be, SF 342 may not be legal because state law requires a correctional impact statement when legislation creates new penalties. Her request for a correctional statement was rejected.
“I am seriously concerned because we are in violation of state law — not House chamber rules or policy, but in violation of state law,” she said. “By debating this bill without waiting for the correctional statement I have requested, we will be jeopardizing the integrity of all of the various provisions of this bill, all of the crimes created by this bill, of all of the benefits to law enforcement created by this bill.”
The House voted 63-30, with eight Democrats joining Republicans who voted “yes” and two Republicans among the “no” votes.
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