DES MOINES — Gov. Kim Reynolds said it will go down as one of the finest hours of the Iowa Legislature.
With dozens of lawmakers and racial justice advocates standing behind her on the same Capitol steps that had been the scene of recent protests, Reynolds on Friday signed into law a package of quickly adopted law enforcement reforms as members of the crowd chanted, “Black Lives Matter!”
Provisions in the new police reform law include a ban on the use of choke holds with some exceptions; requirements for de-escalation and bias training; a prohibition on hiring officers who have been fired for misconduct or using excessive force elsewhere; and clearance for the Iowa Attorney General to investigate cases when an officer’s actions result in an individual’s death — even if a local county attorney demurs.
The new law is a direct result of the backlash and protests that have erupted nationwide since the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man killed as a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers watched.
“The upsetting tragedy, the crime that took George Floyd’s life on a street in Minneapolis, opened the eyes of the nation and sparked a movement. It also reinforced the message of our African-American brothers and sisters that have been telling us for years that injustice exists and is unacceptable in a free and great nation such as this,” Reynolds said. “This bill is a loud and resounding signal from the people of Iowa and its leaders that we are ready and willing to act.”
The legislation, House File 2647, was announced Thursday afternoon and unanimously passed through both chambers of the Legislature within the next 90 or so minutes. Such rapid action in the Legislature is almost unprecedented.
As Reynolds spoke before signing the bill, protesters with Black Lives Matter stood silently with their fists raised. As she signed, they began to chant. And when she finished, they cheered.
“It feels like joy. It feels like pure joy. Everyone is kind of like hugging and dancing and singing,” Matthew Burke, a black man from Des Moines and an organizer with Black Lives Matter, said as music played and protesters danced behind him.
While they celebrated the new law, activists, lawmakers and Reynolds all continued to caution that it represents only a first step toward responding to the calls for the advancement of racial justice.
“This is a culmination of centuries of people feeling unheard, oppressed. And I don’t want to overstate what happened, but I also don’t want to understate the significance of it, either. It’s a small step, but just because it’s small doesn’t mean it’s not significant,” said Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat and black man from Waterloo. “We’re a nation that we can be better than we’ve been. But we have to challenge ourselves every day to do so.”
Smith and Burke said the next policy goals of the movement include ensuring the restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentence, anti-racial profiling measures for law enforcement and the decriminalization of marijuana.
Reynolds could automatically restore felons’ voting rights with an executive order. But so far has resisted that route, saying she prefers the more permanent but multiple-years action of amending the state constitution.
Burke, however, said in Black Lives Matters’ meetings with Reynolds this week she told them she is drafting language for just such an executive order.
Reynolds did not take questions after Friday’s bill signing, and her spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Legislation that would start the process of amending the state constitution is working its way through the Legislature. But Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said Friday whether the Senate advances that bill depends on whether Reynolds plans to issue an executive order.
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Without either an executive order or a constitutional amendment, Reynolds has been considering the voting rights restoration requests on a case-by-case basis.
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