Gov. Reynolds signs ‘Back the Blue Act’ meant to strengthen police protections, increase protest-related penalties

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DES MOINES, Iowa (KCAU) – Gov. Kim Reynolds signed SF 342, also known as the “Back the Blue Act,” into law at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Thursday.

The law makes rioting a felony, establishes qualified immunity, and increases due process protections for law enforcement. The law also holds local governments that prevent local law enforcement from doing their jobs accountable.

“I made it clear in my Condition of the State Address that Iowa’s law enforcement will always have my respect, and I will always have their back. Today’s bill embodies that commitment in a historic way. The public peace is too important, and the safety of our officers too precious, to tolerate destructive behavior,” Gov. Reynolds said.

The bill also bans discrimination in law enforcement, and establishes a process for citizens to file a complaint with the state’s Attorney General.

It comes a year after Gov. Reynolds signed the “More Perfect Union Act,” which enacted significant policing reforms and passed the Iowa Legislature unanimously in one day.

She added that the bill illustrates that “there is no contradiction whatsoever between steadfast support for honorable and selfless law enforcement officers—the vast majority—and a commitment to improving law enforcement.”

Here’s what the new law will do:

  • Raises the penalties for rioting to a felony
  • Raises penalties for unlawful assembly to an aggravated misdemeanor; expands the definition of charges including criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, assault and harassment. 
  • Adds a new aggravated misdemeanor charge for “interference with public disorder control,” meaning protesters who disrupt law enforcement from “legally deploying a device to control public disorder” could be penalized.
  • Expands civil lawsuit protections that police officers have under the doctrine of “qualified immunity”
  • Eliminates liability for some drivers who injure people participating in an unlawful protest if the driver exercises “due care.”
  • Expands the charge of “eluding” to include failing to stop for an officer in an unmarked law enforcement vehicle. 
  • Adjusts several benefit programs for officers.

Democratic leaders in the Iowa Black Caucus held a press conference in response to the legislation signing, saying Republicans failed to continue last year’s momentum in changing policies to improve racial equity. The new law is filled with controversial measures such as increasing penalties for things like rioting and unlawful assembly, which the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimates will have a disproportionate impact on Black Iowans.

When asked about the LSA’s estimate of how this law might have a disparate effect on Black Iowans, the governor said, “don’t break the law and it won’t apply to you.”

Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, a six-term Democrat from Des Moines, said she saw a noticeable change in tone from Republicans about racial justice issues during the 2021 legislative session.

“The attitude in trying to deliberately stop actions around the state that would promote racial coming-together, were stopped. It’s just a real negative, dire tone of ‘we don’t want change,’” she said.

Civil rights advocates like NAACP President Betty Andrews have advocated for a ban on racial profiling and the creation of data system to track police-stops related to race. Those two aspects were included in the governor’s original proposed language at the beginning of the session, but the bills did not make it through.

Reynolds told reporters Thursday that she has had several meetings with Andrews, and is planning on introducing those pieces again in the next legislative session.

“That’s the commitment that I made to to Betty, and we’ll move forward with that we’ll work on it over the interim and see if there’s other things we need to do,” the governor said.

Rep. Ross Wilburn, who also chairs the Iowa Democratic Party, said he does not fully believe that intention since Reynolds promised to get a racial profiling ban over the finish line last year.

“That trust has been broken,” he said. “It will take a significant effort to bring that forward.”

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