Johnston, IA – Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a controversial “Back the Blue” bill into law at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Johnson on Thursday.
Reynolds, a Republican, was surrounded by members of law enforcement as she signed the law on June 17 that will strengthen legal protections for officers and crack-down on protest-related crimes including rioting, the Des Moines Register reported.
She said at the signing that it was important for law enforcement officers to know their governor, their legislators, and their state stand behind them.
“Like so many Iowans, I was raised to be grateful to the heroes who patrol our streets at great personal risk and sacrifice,” the governor said. “And tragically, this fundamental and wholesome part of America’s culture is now under vicious attack.”
Last year, state lawmakers voted to ban chokeholds and crack down on police misconduct, the Des Moines Register reported.
Republicans said the “Back the Blue” law fulfilled campaign promises that candidates made to protect police officers and protect Iowans from the violent riots that plagued most major cities in 2020, the Des Moines Register reported.
The GOP increased its legislative majorities in the state by running on a pro-police platform when so many states were talking about defunding police and stripping them of legal protections.
Iowa Senate File 342 added a definition of “qualified immunity” to Iowa code that adhered to the federal standard, according to the Des Moines Register.
The new definition is more expansive than that which was established by the Iowa Supreme Court in 2018, meaning law enforcement officers will have stronger lawsuit protections.
Senate File 342 also increased the penalties for rioting to a felony and raised penalties for unlawful assembly to an aggravated misdemeanor, while expanding the definition of charges including criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, assault and harassment, the Des Moines Register reported.
The law added a new aggravated misdemeanor charge for “interference with public disorder control,” designed to penalize protesters who stop officers from “legally deploying a device to control public disorder.”
The bill also granted civil immunity to drivers of vehicles who injure a protester blocking a roadway while engaging in disorderly conduct or participating in a protest without a permit, as long as the driver used “due care” and wasn’t engaged in “reckless or willful misconduct,” according to the Des Moines Register.
The new law also expanded the charge of “eluding” to include the failure to stop for an unmarked police vehicle.
Civil rights groups complained that cracking down on protesters would have a disproportionate impact on black Iowans, but Reynolds brushed off those complaints, the Des Moines Register reported.
“Don’t break the law and it won’t apply to you,” she said.
“If you riot, if you loot, if you attack our law officers, then you will be punished to the full extent of the law,” the governor continued. “The public peace is too important, and the safety of our officers too precious, to tolerate destructive behavior.”
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer released a statement that said the ACLU was always ready to sue if the law impinged on the right to peacefully protest, the Des Moines Register reported.
“Lawmakers know that the new penalties and crimes in this law will intimidate those who want to exercise their right to protest while understanding that in doing so, they risk unlawful police violence and arrest,” Stringer said. “Because this law intends to stifle lawful protesters, it is nothing less than an attack on free speech in our state.”
Democrats in the Iowa Legislative Black Caucus claimed Reynolds didn’t reach out to them for input on the legislation and accused her of dropping her earlier push to ban racial profiling in law enforcement, the Des Moines Register reported.
“Instead of furthering an important discussion about anti-racial profiling measures and modernizing our public safety departments, Gov. Reynolds took a giant step backwards,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn said.
Reynolds disagreed and said there was no contradiction between the 2020 police accountability law and the new “Back the Blue” law, the Des Moines Register reported.
“There’s no contradiction between steadfast support for honorable and selfless police officers — the vast majority — and a commitment to improving policing,” the governor said. “There’s no contradiction between world class investigation and treating victims of crime the way we ourselves would want to be treated. And there’s no contradiction between vigorous policing and the community outreach that builds trust between law enforcement and everyday Iowans.”
She said she was working with the Iowa-Nebraska National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on a stand-alone racial profiling bill for next year, the Des Moines Register reported.
“We’ll come back next year and we’ll take the bill and we’ll do it as a standalone next year. And so that’s the commitment that I made to [the NAACP], and we’ll move forward with that,” Reynolds said.
But some lawmakers were skeptical about the governor’s commitment to the racial profiling ban, the Des Moines Register reported.
“She had all session to get something done,” Iowa House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst complained. “We had momentum from last summer, and this session every opportunity existed to come together. We weren’t invited to the table. The recommendations she heard from others were ignored, and so I don’t know why a promise she makes now would be kept any more than a promise she made last summer.”
Iowa State Representative Phyllis Thede said the “Back the Blue” law sent “a terrible, terrible message,” the Des Moines Register reported.
“I am frustrated. I am so dismayed over what’s going on with this bill,” Thede said. “And I think that if we don’t pave the way for better police reform we’re going to see more dangers ahead.”