Iowa Black Caucus legislation racial injustice by police/Photo courtesy of Iowa House Democrats

Members of the Iowa Black Caucus (from left, Representatives Ruth Ann Gaines, Ross Wilburn, Ako Abdul-Samad, Ras Smith and Phyllis Thede) celebrate the approval of recent law enforcement reform legislation. Photo courtesy Iowa House Democrats/Twitter

On the Same Page | Bipartisan Iowa Police Reform Bill a Step Forward

By Danielle Gehr | July 8, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

A dance party erupted on the steps of the Iowa Capitol June 12, celebrating a legislative victory after the police killing of George Floyd sparked weeks of protests in the streets of Des Moines.

The jubilation followed Governor Kim Reynolds' (R) signing of a police reform bill on those same steps to restrict the use of chokeholds by police and increase officer accountability less than a month after Floyd’s death in Minneapolis May 25.

With compromises made and activist groups calling for more, Iowa legislators on both sides agree the bill was a first step forward and a sign that things can get done even in a politically polarized time. 

“That was at least a beginning that hopefully will lead into some other legislation down the line that will help Iowans feel safer,” Representative Ako Abdul-Samad (D) says. “It wasn’t bashing the police department. That was the other good part. It wasn’t one side.”

“It felt peaceful. It felt rewarding. It felt just a good place to be.” —Iowa Representative Phyllis Thede (D)

The five members of the Iowa legislature’s Black Caucus stood with fists in the air as House members applauded the bill’s passage in their chamber. Representative Phyllis Thede (D) called the moment surreal. In her 12 years at the Capitol, she says she had never seen a bill pass that fast.

“As they called our names, we lifted up our thumbs in a yes fashion," Thede says. "And once they called our names ... I put my thumb down and made the fist. It felt peaceful. It felt rewarding. It felt just a good place to be.”

A day later, Iowa joined New York in becoming the first two legislative bodies to enact laws responding to the nationwide protests criticizing police brutality and racial bias. 

As Congress Stalls, States Act

In Washington, D.C., lawmakers face a large gap to bridge as Democrats and Republicans are split on banning chokeholds and qualified immunity, among other partisan policy differences. 

Iowa’s legislation, meanwhile, achieved unanimous support in both chambers after two days of deliberation. Including the drafting of the bill, the whole process took a total of 10 days. 

“That’s incredible for any piece of legislation, and particularly for policing legislation,” Amber Widgery, a policy expert with NCSL, says. “Usually, you have multiple iterations, appeals over years, and then, by the time you reach a consensus bill and get something enacted, it’s usually a much more drawn-out process than that.” 

Some Iowa legislators, including House floor manager Representative Bobby Kaufmann (R), attribute the success to friendships across the aisle, despite ideological differences. He says he’s been a close friend with Representative Ras Smith (D) for two years. Indeed, Smith referred to Kaufmann as a friend when taking the House floor after him. 

“It’s like I said in my closing comments, it’s hard to hate when you care about somebody,” Kaufmann says. “So we were able to utilize long-held friendships to build that trust.”

A Call for Action From Both Sides 

Thede says the Black Caucus began to draft language for a potential bill after meeting with Des Moines Black Lives Matter leaders. Though these legislators had proposed similar measures in the past, this time a call to action was felt on the other side of the aisle. 

When Representative Matt Windschitl (R) took the House floor during the debate on the policing bill, he addressed the prior two weeks filled with unrest and anger across the country. From the comfort of his home, as he watched television, Windschitl says he saw Abdul-Samad out with his constituents speaking with protestors calling for change. It motivated him to set up a meeting with Abdul-Samad and House Speaker Pat Grassley (R) to talk about the legislation when they returned to the Capitol. It was obvious, Abdul-Samad says, that legislators realized something needed to be done.

“Is this a solution to every problem that we have? To every injustice? No,” Windschitl said. “But it’s a damn good start, and we can move forward from here.”

From those conversations around the Capitol, HF 2647 resulted. It allows the attorney general to prosecute officer misconduct without a request from the county attorney. It also bans officers with past serious misconduct, even if done in other states, from being hired at Iowa agencies. 

The bill additionally bans most use of chokeholds by law enforcement, excluding situations when the officer’s or others’ lives are threatened, and the suspect cannot be apprehended by other means. Lastly, the bill sets new requirements for racial bias and de-escalation training. 

“It’s hard to hate when you care about somebody. So we were able to utilize long held friendships to build that trust.” —Iowa Representative Bobby Kauffman (R)

Kaufmann says that in conversations with law enforcement, he did not receive a lot of pushback on these measures since the “bad apples” are held responsible, too. 

“I’m a passionate believer that 99% of police officers are great people," he says. "And just like in any profession, that 1% can give everybody a bad name."

In the other chamber, Senator Jack Whitver (R), the Senate majority leader, recognized a failure of action by Democrats and Republicans alike in the past to fight racial inequalities but added the solution does not solely lay in lawmakers’ hands. 

“The government has a role to play in solving this problem,” Whitver said on the House floor, “but the government cannot solve every problem of racism or discrimination. That change can only happen in the hearts and minds of Americans.”

Why Iowa?

Several states are debating police reform, but for now, Iowa is one of the few that have successfully enacted proposals. Only Colorado, Oregon and Utah, so far, have followed Iowa and New York by recently passing police reform. In another 15 states and Washington, D.C., 182 police reform bills are pending

Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan and Rhode Island adopted resolutions in response to the protests that created task forces and studies. Several state governors opted for executive orders. 

NCSL’s Widgery says state action was made possible largely because of the coronavirus. The Iowa General Assembly, normally scheduled to adjourn April 21, was suspended due to the pandemic, making its June achievement possible. Other states, such as Oregon, called a special session solely for policing issues. 

Two of the proposed policing bills since May 25 failed in chambers, while 114 bills in nine states failed because their sessions adjourned.

In a moment when movements for racial equality have spread nationwide, some may wonder how Iowa, a state with a population that is nearly 90% white, was one of the first to enact change.

Despite its demographics, Iowa has a history of being ahead of the curve on civil rights issues. In 1868, for example, Iowa was one of the first states to remove “white” from its constitution as a qualification for voting.

Still, despite each step forward, historically, Black Iowans have faced discrimination through segregation, redlining, denial of the use of university dormitories and “sunset laws,” which required them to leave certain communities before the sun set in the evening. Today, Black people make up 4% of Iowa’s population but 24% of its prisons.

With June 12’s “baby step,” as Thede refers to the Iowa bill, the Black Caucus and Des Moines Black Lives Matter movement continue to push for more reforms. Restoring felons’ voting rights and ending racial profiling are priorities. 

“Of course, everybody always wants more,” Thede says. “Let’s do this first step, and although it’s a baby step, we can just keep going with this. It doesn’t end after this one.”

She’s optimistic.

“There is a history of us (in Iowa) doing the right thing," Thede says. "While we are polarizing about other things, like voting, we are good about the humanity of people. I’m really proud that Iowa’s that way.”

Danielle Gehr is an education and government reporter with IowaWatch.org, published by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.

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