Staff Editorial

Progress diverted: Reynolds' plan is a step backward for justice

Iowa governor's tough-on-crime package jeopardizes her legacy as a conservative criminal justice reformer

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looks on after delivering her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa L
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds looks on after delivering her Condition of the State address before a joint session of the Iowa Legislature, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Gov. Kim Reynolds made history last year by signing the More Perfect Union Act.

The police killing of a Minnesota man last spring set off a mass protest movement demanding better oversight and accountability of law enforcement. Less than a month after that tragedy, Iowa lawmakers unanimously approved and Reynolds signed a bill to update policing policy statewide, including:

• Banned chokeholds by police in most situations

• Required anti-bias and de-escalation training for officers

• Prohibited rehiring of officers fired for misconduct

• Allowed the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute officers who cause deaths.

That wasn’t the total overhaul some activists called for, but it was a meaningful and laudable set of reforms. Iowa was among the first jurisdictions in the nation to pass new safeguards in the wake of George Floyd’s death. In a historic scene, Black leaders who championed the bill stood around Reynolds for a signing ceremony on the steps of the Iowa Capitol.

Also last year, Reynolds signed an executive order to restore voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences, a move justice reform advocates had pushed for years. In the interim, a committee appointed by Reynolds published new recommendations to start reining in frivolous traffic stops.

It seemed like Iowa was on the right track, a conservative state taking measured steps toward more equitable treatment under the law. Reynolds — who has publicly discussed her experience with substance abuse and touts the power of second chances — earned national recognition for being a leader on criminal justice reform among Republican governors.

However, that tenuous grip on progress started slipping away when the governor laid out her 2021 legislative agenda this month.

In her Condition of the State address at the beginning of the session, Reynolds announced a “Back the Blue Act,” which would bolster protection for police officers while potentially ratcheting up penalties for protesters. The bill would:

• Gives officers the right to pursue civil remedies against a person who injures them or files false claims

• Enhances penalties for harassment and assault of police

• Imposes higher penalties for riotous behavior

• Withholds state funding from local governments that reduce police budgets.

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We firmly condemn property destruction and violence against police officers, but those crimes are adequately addressed under existing law. Reynolds’ proposal would shift the balance of power even further in favor of state agents, and away from citizens.

Des Moines last year was the site of one of the region’s most aggressive local police responses to Black Lives Matter protesters. Area officers used chemical munitions and rubber bullets against demonstrators on more than one occasion and also interfered with journalists covering the protests. Dozens of people were arrested, including a Des Moines Register reporter whose case is ongoing.

Compare that to Iowa City, home to the state’s other most active BLM movement. Shortly after Iowa State Patrol officers used chemicals to prevent marchers from taking over the interstate in July, local government officials agreed to limit police presence at protests. Subsequent gatherings were overwhelmingly peaceful. No journalists were arrested.

Graffiti, broken windows and blocked roadways — like we saw in Iowa City and Des Moines last year — are bad. But perfect enforcement of all laws is not possible.

Police must seek to de-escalate and reduce harm. It’s a difficult balancing act and, commendably, most officers get it right most of the time. We are concerned about the instances where it goes wrong, like in Des Moines last summer.

Police officers and many other government workers already have special legal protection. Riots already are illegal. We worry that boosting up those charges would embolden more aggressive police responses.

Reynolds is buttressing her “Back the Blue” package with a proposal to ban racial profiling by police in the Iowa Code. That is one of the recommendations put forth last year by the FOCUS Committee on criminal justice reform, which she created and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg presided over.

But Reynolds in her recent address did not mention the other pieces of her committee’s recommendations — to require data collection at traffic stops and direct a state board to analyze the figures and report them to the public. The governor’s office did not respond to our message asking if she supported those measures.

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Without the traffic stop data program or other law enforcement reforms — such as body camera requirements, more authority for local police review boards or marijuana decriminalization — Reynolds’ package represents a significant step backward on racial justice and police accountability.

(319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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