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JOHNSTON, Iowa — Surrounded by more than a hundred law enforcement officers, Governor Kim Reynolds signed legislation into law Thursday that strengthens legal protections for police and creates harsher penalties for protest-related crimes. 

“I want you to know that your governor, your legislature and your state stand behind you,” Reynolds said to officers.

The ‘Back the Blue’ bill was one of the Republican governor’s keynote priorities, but it drew criticism from civil rights advocates and Democrats who called it a “step backward” from the unanimously passed police reform law signed last year, that banned police chokeholds and addressed officer misconduct. 

Reynolds decried that notion, saying that each law can coexist harmoniously. 

“I just don’t accept that, it’s absolutely wrong,” she said. “There’s no reason that the two can’t work together, that we’re not continually looking for ways to improve policing while also supporting the mean and women that selflessly and tirelessly every day walk out that door not knowing if they’re going to come back or not.”

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.

“Last summer when lawless mobs across the country coopted peaceful protests to riot and loot, Iowa experienced its share of unrest,” Reynolds said. “So if you riot, if you loot, if you attack our law officers, then you will be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

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.”