Iowa lawmakers unanimously pass a bill to address police violence

Hundreds gathered at the Pentacrest on May 30, 2020, to protest racism and killing of George Floyd. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The Iowa legislature passed a major bill aimed at limiting violent police behavior, little more than two hours after it was introduced on Thursday evening. The bill was unanimously approved by committees and in floor votes in both the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate.

“Too long have black mothers waited for their sons to come home to only find out that they’ve been killed in the street,” Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, said when the House was considering the bill. “Too long have children waited for their black fathers, finding out that they would never come home. When will it end?”

Gaines is one of the five people of color serving in the legislature.

Although the bill moved at almost unprecedented speed through both chambers of the legislature, it had taken almost three weeks of protests around the state, sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, to force lawmakers to confront the issues addressed by the bill.

House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, recalled how he became aware of the problem of police violence against people of color while watching a televised conversation between Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, and a young protester in Des Moines.

“There are things that need change, but were not being heard,” said Windshitl, one of the most conservative members of the legislature.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, one of the leaders of the discussions that began 10 days ago and resulted in this bill, acknowledged that other lawmakers had not been able to agree on other important issues that need to be addressed, such as a racial profiling, but said what the bill did contain represented a historic step forward.

“The gains that we made today speak loudly,” Smith said.

The bill contains four sections.

The first section empowers the Iowa Attorney General to investigate and prosecute potentially criminal actions by police officers, if those actions resulted in the death of an individual. The attorney general would be able to act, even without a request for help from the county attorney where the incident occurred.

The second section bans the use of chokeholds in most, but not all, circumstances. The bill provides a legal definition of a chokehold: as the “intentional and prolonged application of force to the throat or windpipe that prevents or hinders breathing or reduces the intake of air.”

The bill states a law enforcement officer “is justified in the use of any force which the peace officer reasonably believes to be necessary to effect the arrest,” before addressing chokeholds.

However, the use of deadly force or a chokehold is only justified when a person cannot be captured any other way and either of the following apply:

a. The person has used or threatened to use deadly force in committing a felony.

b. The peace officer reasonably believes the person would use deadly force against any person unless immediately apprehended.

The third section of the bill is aimed at stopping officers who have committed “serious misconduct” at one police agency from being hired by another. The bill defines serious misconduct as “improper or illegal actions taken by a law enforcement officer in connection with the officer’s official duties including, but not limited to a conviction for a felony, fabrication of evidence, repeated use of excessive force, acceptance of a bribe, or the commission of fraud.”

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Serious misconduct would disqualify a person from being licensed as a law enforcement officer in Iowa.

The bill instructs the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Council to develop “a process for the certification through examination of law enforcement officers who have been certified in another state” to make sure they have not left a previous department due to credible accusations of serious misconduct. It also requires Iowa law enforcement agencies to inform the council of the “discharge of officers who were fired, voluntarily resigned or were laid off due to serious misconduct.”

Instructing officers in alternatives to violent actions is the subject of the fourth section of the bill. That section requires law enforcement officers to receive training in de-escalation tactics and in recognizing implicit bias on an annual basis. The guidelines for that training will be developed by the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy, in consultation with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission as well as “groups and individuals having an interest and expertise in the field of cultural awareness and diversity, and advocacy organizations with an interest and expertise in the field of biased law enforcement actions.”

Members of Des Moines Black Lives Matter, who have led the protests in that city and worked with lawmakers on issues of police violence and racial equity, were in the visitors galleries at the Iowa State Capitol as the bill was voted on. Rep. Abdul-Samad spoke about the impact they had through their protests.

“I saw the pain,” he said. “I heard the hurt. But that’s what it took for us to move. But now that we have moved, let us keep moving. Let us not turn around.”

Gov. Reynolds was present in both chambers during the discussions of the bill. The governor rarely appears in legislature. After the bill passed, she issued a statement praising lawmakers for their actions.

“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,” the governor said in her press release.

This is the not the first bill dealing with police issues to reach the governor’s desk during the current legislative session.

On June 1, Reynolds signed a bill expanding the definition of “eluding” the police and increasing the penalties for that offense.

“The law Reynolds signed, supported by county prosecutors, creates a wider range of chargeable offenses,” Rekha Basu explained in the Des Moines Register. “Currently a driver can be guilty of a serious misdemeanor for failing to stop when a police car flashes its lights or sounds its siren. The new law ups the offense to an aggravated misdemeanor — or a felony for repeat violations or when there’s excessive speed, alcohol use, drug possession or other aggravating factors. Even marijuana stems and seeds found in the car can make ‘eluding’ a Class D felony. It also prevents courts from granting deferred judgments or sentences in certain cases.”

An analysis prepared for the legislature by the Legislative Services Agency found the bill would have disproportionate impact on minority communities in Iowa.

The bill was passed by the legislature before it went into recess due to COVID-19 on March 16. The governor signed it two days before the legislative session recommenced on June 3.

Reynolds did not make any public statement about the bill when she signed it into law.