Staff Columnist

More secrecy and less accountability: Iowa police's legislative agenda

Both Republicans and Democrats are beholden to law enforcement lobbyists

State Representatives stand at their desks during the Pledge Of Allegiance in the Iowa House chambers, Wednesday, June 3
State Representatives stand at their desks during the Pledge Of Allegiance in the Iowa House chambers, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

As Iowa policymakers consider police reform measures, some people are asking, what about the cops?

We can’t discuss law enforcement policy without giving law enforcers a seat at the table, many police boosters say; like Iowa City Council member Pauline Taylor, who said at a work session last week that the council should not vet local protesters’ policy demands without input from police union representatives.

We already know what the law and order community thinks because they already have a seat at the table. It’s a big seat, too, with at least nine law enforcement organizations employing registered lobbyists at the Iowa Statehouse.

Among all the special interests in Iowa politics, law enforcement demands special scrutiny, but gets none.

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Lobbyists for the Iowa Peace Officers Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and others have been busy the past two years at the Legislature, registering in support or opposition on more than 100 bills during the General Assembly that adjourned this week.

There are some common themes in what the groups lobby on. They tend to support bills aiming to create new offenses or increase penalties, and they are reliably against anything that even slightly resembles drug decriminalization.

The cop lobby has a strong interest in legislation that pertains to its own work, advocating for more legal protection and less accountability for police officers.

• The Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill to increase charges for eluding a law enforcement vehicle, which was a top legislative priority for the Iowa County Attorneys Association but opposed by the Iowa State Bar Association.

• The Legislature unanimously approved a “blue alert” bill, which creates a special public notification system for situations when someone suspected of killing or seriously injuring a peace officer is at large. It’s similar to an Obama-era federal law, based on the Amber Alert and Silver Alert for locating children and elderly people.

• Lawmakers considered a bill creating a “peace officer bill of rights,” which would give special protection and privacy when officers face an administrative investigation. The bill was unanimously approved by a Senate Committee, but not taken up by the full chamber

• The Iowa Public Information Board filed a bill to require the release of more investigation records. Police lobbyists opposed the bill and it never got a committee hearing.

Taken on their own, the positions staked out by police lobbyists aren’t obviously destructive. But in the context of the American law enforcement — where state agents wielding deadly force already are given every benefit of the doubt in the legal system — these policies are a massive overreach.

Police already enjoy qualified immunity, preferential treatment in misconduct investigations, exemptions from public records laws and the knowledge that the system will mobilize in a big way if they are killed or injured on the job.

Among all the special interests in Iowa politics, law enforcement demands special scrutiny, but gets none. Republicans revere police as part of the “back the blue” movement, while Democrats consistently submit to public employee unions and local government interests.

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It’s like the fox guarding the hen house, except it’s the foxes writing laws behind closed doors and then handing them off to Iowa’s legislative farmers for approval.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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