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DES MOINES — After another intense debate over police protections and racial equity, the Republican-led Iowa Senate on Monday approved legislation that would boost support for law enforcement and increase punishments for individuals convicted of rioting.
The so-called “back the blue” legislation would, among other things, shield law enforcement officers from some lawsuits in the form of qualified immunity. Senate File 342 also raises the penalty for rioting from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony.
Republicans said the legislation fulfills a promise they made during the 2020 election campaign and adds protections for law enforcement officers after some racial justice protests turned violent in the past year.
Democrats said the legislation is likely to have a disparate impact on Black Iowans, pointing to nonpartisan state analysis that shows Iowans convicted of rioting are disproportionately Black.
While only 4.1 percent of adult Iowans are Black and 90 percent are white, 71 percent of the individuals jailed for rioting in the state’s fiscal 2020 year were Black and 29 percent were white, according to the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency.
“It is wrong to knowingly increase criminal penalties for an offense that is so disproportionately targeted at Black Iowans,” Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said during debate.
State law enforcement groups are divided on the legislation. The Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association and the Iowa State Patrol Supervisors Association are registered in support of the bill, while the Iowa State Police Association and Iowa Peace Officers Association are registered in opposition, according to lobbyist declarations registered with the state.
Adam Mason, state policy director for the liberal advocacy group Citizens for Community Improvement, in a statement called the bill “clearly an attack on protesters with the statewide movement for Black liberation, who protested for months to demand racial justice and true public safety.”
Multiple Republicans countered that anyone concerned with the heightened penalties should not riot and said the legislation is needed to protect police officers and property owners, including businesses, from the kind of damage that sometimes occurred during racial justice protests last summer.
“We saw a lot of rioting in the last year, and I don’t think it’s OK to go out and damage property, both private or public, and there needs to be consequences,” Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, said during debate. “If enhancing the penalty for that crime helps deter that crime, then I think that’s appropriate.”
Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired law enforcement officer, also raised concern with a provision that would expand the crime of eluding an officer to include drivers who do not pull over for an unmarked officer.
Kinney said, for safety reasons, it is common to recommend a driver wait until reaching a more populated and well-lit area before pulling over for an unmarked car.
SF 342 needs one more stamp of approval from the Iowa House before heading to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for consideration.
In other Senate action, the Senate for a second time unanimously approved legislation that would make it a crime to fail to disclose the location of a body with the intent to conceal a crime.
The impetus for the bill was the drowning of Noah Herring, 15, of Tiffin, in Coralville Lake in April 2020.
During debate, Kinney read an appreciative email from Herring’s mother, in which she said, “No other Iowa family should have to go through what we have gone through.”
Senate File 243 received unanimous support in the Senate on a prior vote, then also unanimously passed the House, where minor changes were made, sending it back to the Senate. The bill now heads to Reynolds for consideration.
The Senate also gave unanimous approval to a package that aims to increase the access and affordability of child care through a combination of grants and tax credits.
While all senators voted for the bill, Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, called the proposal “good, but not good enough.” She said further expansion is needed to include more low-income Iowans in the program.
House File 302 now heads to Reynolds.
The Senate approved a $55 million agriculture department budget for the new state fiscal year. House File 860 passed on a party-line vote, 28-17.
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