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DES MOINES — After another intense debate over police protections and racial equity, the Republican-led Iowa Senate has approved legislation that would boost support for law enforcement and enhance punishments for individuals convicted of rioting.

The so-called “back the blue” legislation would, among other things, shield law enforcement officers from lawsuits using qualified immunity and raised the penalty for rioting from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony.

Republicans said the legislation fulfills a promise they made during the 2020 election campaign, adding protections for law enforcement officers after racial justice protests in some cases have turned violent in the past year.

Democrats said the legislation is likely to have a disparate impact on Black Iowans, pointing to nonpartisan state analysis that shows Iowans convicted of rioting are disproportionately Black.

While only 4.1% of adult Iowans are Black and 90% are Caucasian, 71% of those jailed for rioting in the state’s fiscal 2020 year were Black and just 29% were Caucasian, according to the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Agency.

“It is wrong to knowingly increase criminal penalties for an offense that is so disproportionately targeted at Black Iowans,” Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said.

State law enforcement groups are divided on the legislation. The Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association and the Iowa State Patrol Supervisors Association are registered in support of the bill, while the Iowa State Police Association and Iowa Peace Officers Association are registered in opposition to the bill, according to lobbyist declarations registered with the state.

Adam Mason, state policy director for the liberal advocacy group Citizens for Community Improvement, in a statement called the bill “clearly an attack on protestors with the statewide movement for Black liberation, who protested for months to demand racial justice and true public safety.”

Multiple Republicans countered that anyone concerned with the heightened penalties should not riot, and said the legislation is needed to protect police officers and property owners, including businesses, from the kind of damage that sometimes occurred during racial justice protests last summer.

“We saw a lot of rioting in the last year, and I don’t think it’s OK to go out and damage property, both private or public, and there needs to be consequences,” Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-LeClaire, said during debate. “If enhancing the penalty for that crime helps deter that crime, then I think that’s appropriate.”

Sen. Kevin Kinney, D-Oxford, a retired law enforcement officer, also raised concern with a provision that would expand the crime of eluding an officer to include drivers who do not pull over for an unmarked officer. Kinney said, for safety reasons, it is common to recommend a driver wait until reaching a more populated and well-lit area before pulling over for an unmarked officer.

Senate File 342 needs approval from the Iowa House before heading to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk for her consideration.

In other Senate action:

  • The Senate for a second time unanimously approved legislation that would make it a crime to fail to disclose the location of a body with the intent to conceal a crime.

The impetus for the bill was the death of Noah Herring, 15, of Tiffin, in Coralville Lake in April 2020.

During debate, Kinney read an appreciative email from Herring’s mother that stated, “No other Iowa family should have to go through what we have gone through.”

Senate File 243 received unanimous support in the Senate on a prior vote, then also unanimously passed the House, where minor changes were made, sending it back to the Senate. The bill now heads to Reynolds for her consideration.

  • The Senate also gave unanimous approval to a package that aims to increase the access and affordability of child care through a combination of grants and tax credits.

While all Senators approved the bill, Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott, D-Windsor Heights, called the proposal “good, but not good enough.” She said further expansion is needed to include more low-income Iowans in the program.

House File 302, heads to Reynolds for her consideration.

The Senate approved a $55 million agriculture department budget for the next state fiscal year. House File 860 passed on a party-line, 28-17 vote.

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