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As “Back the Blue” bill waits in the senate, Republicans and activists at odds

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A Back The Blue rally in Marion from July 2020.
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Harold Walehwa speaking at a "Stop the Racist Bills" rally in Des Moines on April 8.

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KWWL) - Thousands of activists who've been fighting for systemic change in police departments across the U.S. felt the same way after Derek Chauvin was convicted of second degree unintentional murder on April 20; it was a win but there's more work to do.

"I think with the Derek Chauvin trial...it was very rare," Harold Walehwa said, a member of the Advocates for Social Justice in Cedar Rapids. "It's only a small portion of accountability."

Walehwa and ASJ have held dozens of peaceful marches to draw attention to police brutality in the U.S. and demand local reforms in the Cedar Rapids Police Department.

The Coe College junior, who's interning for the group, says they have miles yet to go.

"We need to focus on tackling the systemic issues of policing and violence in policing," Walehwa said.

The Iowa senate is currently considering a bill that he says would make their work a lot harder; SF 342 or the "Back the Blue" bill as it's been dubbed.

The bill, which passed the house on April 14 with some Democratic support, would elevate criminal penalties for people in a "riot" or "unlawful assembly" and increase qualified immunity for police officers.

Qualified immunity protects individual police officers when they are sued.

ASJ held a protest at the Iowa State Capitol on April 8 to protest this bill and others. Walehwa says it was a peaceful protest where one person was arrested for touching an Iowa State Patrol Officer.

ASJ says this bill is racist because people of color are disproportionately affected by police brutality and this makes it harder for them to get justice.

Harold Walehwa speaking at a "Stop the Racist Bills" rally in Des Moines on April 8.

Republicans supporting the bill say that is not the case.

"There's two broad things we want to accomplish: show support for law enforcement and make sure they have the tools to keep our community safe," Rep. Jared Klein said, R-Washington.

Klein added a 33-page amendment to the bill that made it what it is today. He says he wants the racial justice conversation to continue, as long as it is through peaceful protests.

"Peaceful is great, but when it gets to the point where there's defacing of public property, violence...that is not peaceful. That's violent, and that we cannot tolerate," Klein said.

The bill raises the penalty for "rioting" from an aggravated misdemeanor to a Class D felony. It also raises the penalty for being in an unlawful assembly from a simple misdemeanor to an aggravated one.

The bill also would dramatically change how Iowa police officers get qualified immunity.

In 2018, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in the case of Baldwin vs. City of Estherville that officers are protected under qualified immunity, so long as their agency can prove they were acting "in all due care".

The language in SF 342 would change it so officers are protected unless the plaintiff can prove the officer was violating a clearly defined section of the law. It also clarifies "every reasonable employee would have understood" their conduct was violating that law.

Dave O'Brien is a Cedar Rapids lawyer who's studied this area of the law extensively and says it would be nearly impossible for plaintiffs to satisfy this burden of proof.

"Some rights are so widely understood there may not be a court decision out there. It may be no officer has ever attempted what you just did," O'Brien said. "You can't win a case if it's read literally."

Rep. Klein told KWWL Wednesday he did not know of the 2018 Supreme Court decision but was confident the language he submitted was different than the language vetoed in that case. O'Brien said he believes the Supreme Court would strike this bill down if enacted.

The bill is awaiting debate in the senate. Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said Wednesday he is waiting for senate Republicans to either amend the bill or introduce it before commenting.

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Travis Breese

Reporter, Iowa City

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