Kim Reynolds says she hopes her criminal justice bill will bring people together but critics abound
Last summer, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a police officer accountability law after it passed the Iowa Legislature unanimously.
The Republican governor's follow-up proposal, released on Tuesday, is not receiving that universal acclaim.
Republicans are enthusiastic about parts of the bill, including increased penalties for assaulting police officers and cutting off state funding for cities that cut their police budgets. Meanwhile, some Democrats and civil rights groups, which have pushed for adding a ban on racial profiling in state law, are dismayed to see that measure combined with beefed up criminal penalties and punishment for cities.
“Seeing the governor combine these very different components in one bill is like watching someone administer a poison pill," Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said in a statement. "These two sections need to be separated into two bills and considered separately."
House Republican lawmakers said Wednesday that the bill contains many measures that they had worked on independently of the governor and builds on the message they heard on the campaign trail last fall.
“We heard very loud and clear from our voters this year that they believe in law and order, they believe in supporting law enforcement and that’s what they want us to do,” said Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee.
Reynolds says the bill can be bipartisan; Democrat calls it 'a political stunt'
In a statement, Reynolds said she hoped for a repeat of the unity that marked last year's measure on police.
“I am proud to introduce a bill that protects law enforcement while continuing our march toward social justice," she said Wednesday evening. "I want to thank the FOCUS committee for the recommendations that helped shape the legislation. I am hopeful that once again the Legislature can come together in a bipartisan way and move this bill forward.”
Republican lawmakers said they like several aspects of the governor’s bill, including a section that would cut off state funding to cities that decrease their police budgets.
“If there’s a city that full out says ‘We’re going to defund the police,’ then we as a state are going to have to pick up that slack, and we’re not going to give them their other money that they’re used to getting,” Klein said.
The bill allows cities to justify reasons for decreasing their police budgets, and Klein said lawmakers want to allow cities the ability to reduce staffing or budgets due to various issues.
For subscribers:What's in Gov. Kim Reynolds' criminal justice bill?
“I think we’re trying to make sure that’s addressed correctly so we’re not going after people that we don’t intend,” Klein said.
Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s not aware of any cities in Iowa that would lose state funding under the bill if it passed.
“To me this is about prevention, making sure that it doesn’t happen. We don’t want that to happen in Iowa,” Holt said.
And Holt said he likes increasing penalties for crimes like rioting or pointing a laser pointer at another person and adding a new crime of "bias-motivated harassment" of law enforcement officers and other professions.
“In this day and time, what police officers are enduring and what they’re going through, I think it’s appropriate to consider increased penalties for assaulting law enforcement officers,” he said.
Both Republicans agreed that there are areas of the bill that will need more work.
“I’ve had members come up and express concerns with pieces of the bill. I’ve had them express support for pieces of the bill. But we’re far from a point where we’ve worked through it,” Klein said.
Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired sheriff’s deputy, said he’s currently “neutral” on the bill but wants to take more time to hear more from interested parties and learn how the various sections would function.
Kinney said he wants to learn more about the increased penalties for cities that cut police budgets, and the higher penalties for harassing officers. On the surface, he said, they seem to show support for law enforcement.
“I don’t think any Democrats are for defunding the police,” he said. “That was a message that was used against Democrats. I was a cop for 30 years and support law enforcement."
Other Democrats are strongly opposed to the bill.
Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, who helped write last year’s police accountability law, accused Reynolds of “bullying” cities that disagree with her by threatening to cut funding. And he said the decision to combine the racial profiling ban with the rest of the bill is divisive.
“I think it’s nothing but a political stunt, which is really unfortunate because we were making gains last year,” he said.
Smith said it’s problematic for Reynolds to increase the penalties for people convicted of crimes against officers without also increasing penalties for officers who commit crimes.
“When you get a badge and you get a gun, you also get greater responsibility, which means greater accountability. And for those few law enforcement officers that have patterns of abusing that, she hasn’t made the community any safer against those individuals,” he said.
NAACP: ‘The harm it will wreak far outweighs the benefits’
The governor’s decision to combine the different elements of the bill lost her the support of groups that have pushed for years for Iowa to address racial profiling in law enforcement.
Andrews, with the NAACP, has worked with Reynolds for months as part of the Governor's FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice Reform. Last fall, the committee delivered recommendations to Reynolds for legislation to address racial profiling and work toward unbiased policing.
But Andrews said Tuesday that the NAACP's first look at Reynolds' bill "suggests the harm it will wreak far outweighs the benefits it promises."
Andrews said the increased criminal penalties in the law will increase racial disparities in Iowa's criminal justice system "and criminalize expression of valid grievances."
"The 'Back the Blue' components are a very heavy-handed overreaction to last summer's protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd denouncing racial injustice in law enforcement and other systems," Andrews said in her statement.
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The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has been working to pass a law banning racial profiling in Iowa for years, but the group released a statement Wednesday from Executive Director Mark Stringer opposing the bill “in the strongest possible terms.” The statement said passage would undo years of progress on criminal justice issues.
Pete McRoberts, an ACLU lobbyist, said his group has concerns with several sections of the bill, including a provision that would require someone charged with criminal mischief, rioting, unlawful assembly or disorderly conduct to be held in jail for 24 hours.
“It’s a way to essentially sentence someone prior to a determination of guilt. ... everybody arrested under this section could be held for a day and then never fully prosecuted,” McRoberts said.
Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, called the bill a "direct attack" on activists who say money needs to be redirected from policing into other areas of the community to help people.
“That’s a direct attack against us and other racial justice protesters and activists who have been calling for the defunding of police because we recognize that American policing is systemically racist, is inherently racist,” he said.
And Cavil said a provision of the bill that would allow officers to sue over injuries received due to their status as law enforcement officials, including false complaints, will have a chilling effect on legitimate complaints against officers, which seems to contradict the bill’s ban on racial profiling.
“Folks already are not going through the process of actually filing formal complaints with the police department when they should be, and this bill is only trying to further discourage people from doing that because now there’s a possible penalty attached to you filing this complaint against a police officer,” he said.
Some law enforcement groups opposed: Bill 'kind of all over the place'
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Iowa State Police Association and the Iowa Peace Officers Association, two groups representing Iowa law enforcement, had also registered against the bill. The Iowa Police Chiefs Association had registered as undecided.
Iowa Peace Officers Association President Mike McKelvey, who serves as a captain on the Mason City Police Department, said he’s grateful the governor wants to support law enforcement. But, he said, he’s concerned about enforcement of some of the new charges and worries that increasing penalties and creating a new felony called “bias-motivated harassment” could give the people a wrong impression.
“We definitely don’t want to inflame or increase any rifts that may be there with a lot of the people we serve,” he said.
He said he believes more people should work on the language, calling the bill “kind of all over the place.” He said it appears to carry “political messages” and reactions to last year’s protests and the national conversation about restructuring police departments.
“I think our association is just kind of worried, with the focus and attention paid to this, that we want to do it right,” he said of the bill.
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the Iowa Peace Officers Association, a non-profit organization that trains and supports members of law enforcement.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.