Government

Iowa lawmakers unite in calling for police reforms

Bill targets chokeholds and hiring practices, adds training

Matthew Bruce with Des Moines Black Lives Matter leads a chant at the State Capitol on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Des
Matthew Bruce with Des Moines Black Lives Matter leads a chant at the State Capitol on Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP)
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DES MOINES — Racial justice legislation is headed to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk after a remarkable few hours Thursday at the Capitol.

With protesters watching from the gallery, state lawmakers fast-tracked a package of police reforms, including a limit on the use of choke holds and mandatory de-escalation training.

The legislation was announced late Thursday afternoon, and by evening both the Iowa House and Senate had unanimously approved the bills and sent them to Reynolds, who in a rare move dropped in on debate in both chambers.

“These past few months have been really difficult for some of us,” said Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat and black man from Waterloo. “But on this day, everything that makes us different doesn’t make a difference. On this day, in this body, the sunlight shines a little brighter. … It’s illuminated a path toward our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all people.”

Crafted by leaders from both parties in both chambers, the governor’s office and some of the Legislature’s few black representatives, the package of proposals contains many of the elements called for by racial justice advocates who have been activated since the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota man who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Among the provisions in the bill:

• Officers cannot use choke holds, with exceptions for if a person cannot be captured any other way and the person already has threatened or used deadly force.

• An officer cannot be hired if he or she has been fired or quit another department while being investigated for serious misconduct, including use of excessive force, or convicted of a felony.

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• All law enforcement officers are required to be trained and instructed on de-escalation techniques; instruction on bias; an examination of practices and protocols that cause biased actions; and an understanding of and respect for diverse communities and the use of noncombative law enforcement methods in those communities.

• The Iowa Attorney General’s Office may prosecute an officer if the officer’s actions result in the death of another.

Members of Black Lives Matter of Des Moines watched from the galleries as lawmakers debated and unanimously approved the measures.

“Des Moines BLM is excited to see that our protests are bearing immediate fruits,” Matthew Bruce, an organizer with the group, said in a text message to The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau. “The proposed legislation is a step in the right direction but falls far short of ending the capacity for state-sponsored racism in the state of Iowa. We will continue to push for the voting rights of all Iowans who have served their felony sentence as well as our overall goal of defunding police.”

Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democratic state legislator and black man from Des Moines, praised those protesters for placing a spotlight on racial justice issues since Floyd’s death. Abdul-Samad has spent many nights on the Des Moines streets with the protesters, attempting to keep them peaceful.

“What makes this historical is we are righting a historical wrong,” Abdul-Samad said. “I’m saying to you today, my beloved brothers and sisters, and I mean all of you, 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.”

Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, a Democratic state legislator and black woman from Des Moines, reflected on how as a young girl she learned from her parents about racism and recalled portraying Rosa Parks, the famous civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat on an Alabama public bus to a white passenger, in a local community theater production.

Gaines said she was pleased to be able to vote on the legislation after years of inaction on racial justice proposals.

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“I never would have dreamed that I could stand on the floor of the Iowa Legislature and support a bill that would help all of this indignity to black Americans stop. But here I am. And here it is,” Gaines said.

Rep. Steve Holt, a Republican state legislator from Denison and a retired Marine, expressed his continued support for law enforcement officers, but added he also recognized a need for changes. Similarly, he condemned violent outbursts at protests that have taken place across Iowa and the country, but added that those acts should not drown out the peaceful discussion about advancing racial justice.

“I have spent my life serving my country, and I grieve for what is happening in our streets. I grieve that every citizen does not feel the way I do about my country,” Holt said. “I grieve that in our great country, a criminal hiding in a police uniform placed his knee on a man’s neck until he was dead. I love my country more than life itself, and I am trying to listen even though I don’t always understand or agree with what I’m hearing. We are all Americans, and we are all one nation under God.”

After House File 2647 passed both chambers, Reynolds issued a statement praising lawmakers for their work.

“These problems didn’t arise overnight and they won’t be fixed in a day,” Reynolds said in her statement. “We are just getting started, but our work together shows Iowa is willing to have the tough conversations and to look past our differences to find common ground and a brighter future for all Iowans.”

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