'We are ready and willing to act': Gov. Kim Reynolds signs law banning most chokeholds, addressing police misconduct
Chants of "Black lives matter" punctuated every stroke of Gov. Kim Reynolds' pen as she signed into law bipartisan legislation banning most police chokeholds and addressing police officer misconduct.
Behind her, the state's few Black lawmakers and many more supporters raised their fists in the air.
Reynolds signed the law Friday afternoon on the steps of the Iowa Capitol, just one week after a group of Democratic lawmakers and activists stood in the same spot and outlined their goals to address police violence.
"This bill is a loud and resounding signal from the people of Iowa and its leaders that we are ready and willing to act," Reynolds said before she signed the measure.
Many of those chanting were activists with Des Moines Black Lives Matter, who have been at the Capitol much of the week to push legislators and the governor for additional changes.
Reynolds acknowledged the work of activists who have protested on the streets in recent weeks, saying she plans to continue pushing for racial justice reform.
"To the thousands of Iowans who have taken to the streets calling for reforms to address inequities faced by people of color in our state, I want you to know that this is not the end of our work, it is just the beginning," she said.
After the bill was signed, supporters began playing music and dancing. Democratic Reps. Ako Abdul-Samad and Ras Smith, two of Iowa's five Black lawmakers, joined in.
Abdul-Samad said the dancing was a way of showing support for the activists — or, "game-changers," in his words — whom he credited with helping the bill become law.
"If the game-changers were not there, we would be leaving this session without that bill," he said.
Speedy approval, signature
The measure moved through the legislative process at unusual speed. Leadership in the House and Senate simultaneously introduced companion bills in each chamber Thursday afternoon.
Within a few hours, every lawmaker in the building had voted to pass the measure. Reynolds attended both floor debates to watch the bill pass.
"It will go down as one of this Legislature's finest hours," Reynolds said Friday.
House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl, R-Missouri Valley, said Thursday it was the fastest he had seen a bill move in his 14 years in the Legislature.
"Is this a solution to every problem we have, to every injustice? No. But it’s a damn good start,” he said. “And we can move forward from here.”
After the governor finished signing the new law, activists erupted in chants of, "Let them vote!" referring to their push for Reynolds to sign an executive order that would automatically restore voting rights to felons.
Reynolds has long backed a constitutional amendment to allow people convicted of felonies to automatically get their rights restored after their sentences, rather than making the change through an executive order. She has said only an amendment would make the change permanent, a fact borne out by the history of Iowa governors who restored those rights only to have a subsequent governor undo the change.
But constitutional amendments take years to win approval. Even if the Legislature moved quickly, it would take at least until 2022 for voters to approve the restoration vote on the ballot.
Activists have long asked her to move more quickly, through an executive order that could allow former felons to vote as soon as the 2020 general election.
On Friday, a group of six Des Moines Black Lives Matter activists met with Reynolds, Abdul-Samad and Smith to discuss their request. They emerged from the meeting saying Reynolds was open — although noncommittal — to signing such an order. They said she plans to meet with activists again on Monday to show them a draft, and that signing it would also be contingent on discussions with lawmakers.
“I'm cautiously optimistic,” organizer Matthew Bruce said afterward. "It definitely is apparent that things are moving forward on the executive order front."
Reynolds' spokesman, Pat Garrett, refused to confirm the activists' account.
Smith, who was in the meeting, said the governor had committed to "following up and looking at the next steps of the process."
"I commend the young people for continuing to push forward, but I think we still have some conversations that need to be had," he said. "We still have a way to go to really see if the governor is going to commit and take action."
What the law would do, how it came about
The new law will ban most chokeholds by police, allow the Iowa Attorney General to investigate deaths caused by an officer, and prevent officers from being hired in Iowa if they previously have been convicted of a felony, fired for misconduct or quit to avoid being fired for misconduct. It will also require annual training for law enforcement on de-escalation techniques and implicit bias.
The law is part of a wave of police policy changes being enacted across the country after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. The officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Chauvin and three other officers have been charged in connection with Floyd's death.
Protesters gather on Iowa Capitol grounds after marching from Wells Fargo Arena and city hall. Des Moines Register
Protests have erupted across the country, including in Iowa, demanding drastic changes to police departments, including "defunding."
Other state and local governments have also pledged action. The Des Moines City Council is considering a racial profiling ordinance that activists have demanded for years. In Minneapolis, the city council agreed to "dismantle" its police department. Other cities have reduced funding to their departments or are changing their policies regarding officer misconduct.
As the measure Reynolds signed Friday was approved in the Legislature Thursday evening, Black Lives Matter activists were in the legislative galleries, watching their protests turn to action.
Jaylen Cavil said he was in the gallery with about 25 others when the bill passed the House. They then ran to the Senate to watch it pass there.
"It felt good," he said.
He said the approval was a good step, but he's worried about some of the exceptions, specifically one that would allow police chokeholds in life-threatening situations. The justification for police violence is often that they are in a life-threatening situation, he said.
"It still allows for the police to use a chokehold if they think they feel their life is in danger, which, what cop doesn't say their life is in danger?" he said. "So we're disappointed about the language on that part."
In both chambers, lawmakers gave emotional speeches about the need for change. When the measure passed the House on a 98-0 vote, Iowa's Black lawmakers stood together and raised their fists.
“I never would have dreamed that I could stand on the floor of the Iowa Legislature and support a bill that would help all of this indignity to Black Americans stop," said Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines. "But here I am. And here it is.”
Lawmakers said the swift action will not be the end of their efforts to address police violence and racism.
"It’s an important first step," said Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames. "And that work will continue. It has to continue after we adjourn in this particular session, and it has to continue on toward other parts of criminal justice reform."
Additional legislation may have to wait until next year as lawmakers scramble to wrap up a legislative session cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.
Legislators returned to the Capitol this month after a two-and-a-half-month hiatus and are close to passing a state budget and returning home for the year.
What does the measure do?
Bans most chokeholds
The law bans officers from using chokeholds when making an arrest, with two exceptions:
If a person cannot be captured in any other way and
- That person has used or threatened to use deadly force in committing a felony or
- The police officer "reasonably believes the person would use deadly force" unless immediately apprehended
Those are the same circumstances that allow an officer to use deadly force.
"Chokehold" is defined in the bill as "the intentional and prolonged application of force to the throat or windpipe that prevents or hinders breathing or reduces the intake of air."
Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, a retired Marine, said Thursday that those exceptions are an important part of the bill.
"Restricting the use of chokeholds is appropriate with the qualifying language," he said. "It is easy to sit in the relative safety of our chairs and dictate to law enforcement what they can and cannot use out on the street in the performance of their duties. But again, the qualifying language on chokeholds, when there is an imminent threat to life, is of great importance, and we must support our officers who find themselves in life-threatening situations."
Iowa attorney general can investigate deaths caused by police
The Iowa Attorney General's office has the power under the law to prosecute an officer who kills someone, regardless of whether the local county attorney asks for assistance from the attorney general's office or decides to bring charges against the officer.
If the attorney general decides the officer's actions do not constitute a crime but still merit disciplinary action, the office can refer the issue to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Council.
“These are somber and serious times, and this legislation reflects that," Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said in a statement Thursday. "Our office is registered in support of the bills. This legislation can lead to real reform by addressing chokeholds and officer misconduct. It is a step forward. I am gratified to see our legislators come together. At a time like this, bipartisanship is crucial."
Forbids rehiring of officers fired for misconduct
The law lays out rules for revoking or suspending a law enforcement officer's certification and aims to prevent officers with a history of misconduct from moving between departments.
It includes a screening process for law enforcement officers hired from other states and prevents those who have been convicted of a felony, fired for serious misconduct or quit to avoid being fired for misconduct from being certified as officers in Iowa.
"Serious misconduct" is defined as improper or illegal actions taken by an officer in connection with their official duties, including a felony conviction, fabrication of evidence, repeated excessive force, accepting a bribe and fraud.
"These few actors put a dark stain on the badge of amazing officers who are out there every day serving our community," said Sen. Zach Nunn, R-Altoona.
De-escalation and implicit bias training
Officers in Iowa will be required to go through annual training on de-escalation techniques and prevention of bias, and the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy will be directed to develop training guidelines that follow best practices.
The training includes an emphasis on understanding and respect for diverse communities; an examination of the causes of biased law enforcement actions and how to prevent them; instruction on implicit bias and how historical perceptions of profiling have harmed community relations; the history of the Civil Rights movement and its effect on law enforcement; and more.
The de-escalation techniques would include verbal and physical methods of minimizing the need to use force and nonlethal methods of using force.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
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