Unanimously supported in the Iowa Legislature, a new statewide police reform law aims to weed out bad cops, increase diversity training and ban the use of chokeholds in most cases.
While the law was widely hailed as historic, many law enforcement officials interviewed do not expect it to bring immediate changes. Rather, it will bring more uniformity to policies and hiring practices, they say, and open the door to more changes.
The racial justice legislation was approved June 11 in the midst of ongoing protests over the death of a Black Minnesota man at the hands if a white police officer.
The state law is in addition to reforms many Iowa cities are considering also because of the protests, including establishing local citizen review panels of police.
Some of the most significant measures in the law, House File 2647, ban the use of police chokeholds in Iowa unless the officer is facing a life-or-death situation, bars the hiring of officers who had previously been fired due to misconduct and outlines new annual training requirements for officers.
The bill was drafted, debated, passed unanimously and signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds in just 10 days. Reynolds said the law will go down as one of the Iowa Legislature’s finest moments.
“This bill is a loud and resounding signal from the people of Iowa and its leaders that we are ready and willing to act,” she said June 12, as she signed the bill into law.
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A flashpoint in the debate over police reform, police chokeholds have been a controversial law enforcement tactic for decades. However, in the past 20 years most large departments in the nation have banned the practice in some form.
The new law states the use of chokeholds by law enforcement officers “is only justified when a person cannot be captured any other way.” Additionally, the subject has to have “used or threatened to use deadly force in committing a felony,” or the officer must “reasonably believe the person would use deadly force against any person unless immediately apprehended.”
Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said use-of-force policies for many agencies across the state, including the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, already include such parameters on chokeholds.
“Most of us are following that standard already,” Gardner said. “So I don’t think that’s something that is going to be a big change for most of the departments in the state.”
What the new law does do, said Rob Burdess, is create a statewide standard of best practices.
President of the Iowa Police Chiefs Association and chief of the Newton Police Department, Burdess said having a statewide chokehold policy “evens the playing field” for all departments and forces those with more “antiquated policies” to get on the same page as everyone else.
The bill also bars law enforcement agencies from hiring officers who previously were fired for misconduct or excessive use of force, as well as officers who voluntarily left the force before imminent termination.
“That is probably one of the most important parts of this bill,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton. “We don’t want to rehire the very small percentage of — and I want to be clear that it’s very small percentage — bad cops. We want to make sure that if an officer has been let go for nefarious reasons in another area, that he is not able to fly under the radar and be hired somewhere else.
“We want to make sure that if an officer is, say, a repeat offender — you know, someone who has received several marks for misconduct or brutality or other things of that nature — that they are put on a blacklist and will never be hired again in the state of Iowa,” Kaufmann said.
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Locally, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said June 12 in response to the new legislation that the department’s policies already align with much of the new law, and include going to extensive lengths to not hire previously fired or problem officers.
“We have extensive background investigations of police officer candidates, including a review of their employment history, polygraph tests, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and interviews,” he said. “Background checks require a review of the National Decertification Index. Also, the Civil Service Commission — three citizens appointed by the City Council — conduct interviews and provide a certified list of candidates to the Police Department.”
Additionally, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said the department already conducts a national decertification data check on all potential recruits once they make it to the background stage of the hiring process.
Another major piece of the legislation outlines extensive training requirements for officers, including education in de-escalation techniques, implicit bias and best practices for understanding, respecting and interacting with diverse communities, as well as “an examination of patterns, practices and protocols that have cause biased law enforcement actions and the tools to prevent such actions.”
“Much of these training requirements have already been implemented in departments across the state,” said Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek. “I know here in Johnson County, we’ve included de-escalation tactics as well as implicit bias and crisis intervention in our training for many years. And, you know, I think further education is something that a most cops have always wanted.”
Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, who has been at the scene of protests trying to diffuse tensions, also expressed pride in the legislation.
“I’m saying to you today, my beloved brothers and sisters, and I mean all of you,” he said as lawmakers discussed the bill June 11, “not only are you a part of history, you are rectifying history. And that is something that you can tell your babies, your grandchildren, so they can tell this story from now on what we did in Iowa.”
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