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Reynolds signs ‘back the blue’ law to support police, increase punishments for protest crimes
Democrats decry ‘racist tone’ of last legislative session
JOHNSTON — Flanked by a roomful of uniformed law officers from around Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday signed a “back the blue” bill that boosts support and legal protections for law enforcement as well as increases punishments for people convicted of rioting and makes it easier to charge protesters with crimes.
"Iowa’s law enforcement will always have my respect and I will always have their back," the governor told law officers and cadets at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy before signing into law Senate File 342, a bill that will shield law enforcement officers from some lawsuits in the form of qualified immunity and raises the penalties for a host of criminal behaviors including rioting, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, assault, harassment and eluding law officers or interfering with officers trying to control public order.
According to the nonpartisan Legislative Service Agency, the measure expands sick leave and workers' compensation rights for public safety employees. It also expands criminal mischief to include acts that damage or deface public property including monuments and statues; and makes it a crime of disorderly conduct for a protester to obstruct a public roadway.
Reynolds said the bill fulfilled a commitment she made last January in her Condition of the State address to protect law officers who have come "under vicious attack." But Democrats and racial justice advocates who had worked with the governor on a policing reform measure a year ago to ban chokeholds and begin to raise accountability for law officers decried Thursday's action as a "giant step backwards" in efforts to bridge Iowa's racial divides.
"This legislation has shown that we have gone backwards," said Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, who added she was "frustrated and dismayed" by the passage and signing of SF 342. "We have again divided Democrats and Republicans, I think that sends a terrible, terrible message."
In her remarks before signing the bill, Reynolds pushed back on criticism by saying “there is no contradiction whatsoever between steadfast support for honorable and selfless law enforcement officers — the vast majority — and a commitment to improving law enforcement.” She pledged to continue working to end racial profiling by police and pursue other recommendations made by a working group that did not see legislative action in 2021. Reynolds noted the new law contains provisions that ban discrimination in the enforcement of the law and establish a process for citizens who believe their rights have been violated to file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
Reynolds said the measure also marks a "historic" commitment by making rioting a felony, increasing penalties on a range of other "destructive" criminal behaviors, establishing qualified immunity for officers against some types of legal action, increasing due process protections for law enforcement and attempting to hold local governments accountable for actions deemed to prevent local law enforcement from doing their jobs.
"If you riot, and if you loot, if you attack our law officers, then you’ll be punished to the fullest extent of the law," the governor said during Thursday's signing ceremony. "The public peace is too important, and the safety of our officers too precious, to tolerate destructive behavior."
Reynolds also used the occasion to sign House File 708, a separate bill creating a law enforcement equipment fund with an initial $5 million investment.
Judy Bradshaw, a former Des Moines police chief who directs the state's Law Enforcement Academy, said the backdrop of law officers and cadets from a variety of agencies, communities and backgrounds was fitting for what she called "this special occasion" to sign "one of the most significant bills to impact and support law enforcement. It’s truly an historical moment for law enforcement and the citizens of Iowa," she added in applauding the governor's leadership in backing law enforcement.
"Thank you for you services, especially in this difficult and unpredictable time," Reynolds told the assembled group. "Your job has never been harder or more complex. It’s taking place against the backdrop of political tension that you didn’t ask for and did nothing to encourage. But it’s also never been more important because the best counter argument to political attacks is quiet professionalism. The kind that fuses duty and connection; justice and mercy; and enforcement and compassion. ‘Back the blue’ empowers you to make that counter argument ever more effectively than you already have."
Legislative Democrats criticized the GOP governor and majority Republican legislative leaders for walking away from a call for unity over racial justice issues and signing a bill that a nonpartisan legislative analysis projected would have a disproportionate negative impact on minority Iowans.
"Instead of furthering an important discussion about anti-racial profiling measures and modernizing our public safety departments, Gov. Reynolds took a giant step backwards," said Rep. Ross Wilburn, an Ames legislator who also is chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. "One year ago, the governor signed legislation that banned most chokeholds and made a promise to Iowans that ‘this is not the end of our work, it’s just the beginning.’ We now know that statement was a lie. Instead, she ignored the call to unify."
Wilburn said Thursday's action broke a promise and broke the trust of Iowans who were "more than willing" to work in a transformative, bipartisan way for change that would have a lasting, positive effect on Iowa.
Thede and Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, said they detected a "change in tone" among legislative Republicans this past session on a number of issues that dealt with diversity training, critical race theory education, voting rights and other bills that sent a "veiled, negative, dire" tone and message to young Iowans and people outside the state that "we don't want to grow, we want to maintain status quo."
"That was the big message of this session: ‘We don’t see a need for diversity, we don’t see a need for collaboration. It is our way or the highway,’" said Gaines.
Added Thede: "If this is not a racist tone, I am not sure what is and is not.“
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, who attended Thursday’s signing event, said the legislation fulfilled a GOP campaign promises that “we would back the blue,” but Senate Democratic Leader Zach Wahls of Coralville said the bill was more “aimed at making political points, not making our communities safer.”
Jeff Kaufmann, a former legislator who chairs the Republican Party of Iowa, said SF 342 makes clear Iowa supports law enforcement when “too often now the loudest voices are demonizing them,” while Mark Stringer, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, called the bill “clearly an effort to shut down public criticism of abuses by law enforcement.”