New law could reset salary structure at Sheriff’s office
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – Area law enforcement officials are touting the impact of the “Back the Blue” legislation signed into law last week by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber and Fort Madison Police Chief Mark Rohloff both pointed to qualified immunity as one of the biggest changes in the bill that will have an immediate impact.
Weber said the language in no way gives a free pass to law enforcement.
“The thing I’m seeing the most pushback on is qualified immunity. Without knowing what that means, people think that gives cops the right to do whatever they want and not be accountable, and that’s just not the case.” Weber said.
“If an officer is breaking the law or violating policy by doing something inhumane or violating people’s rights, we wouldn’t have their back anyway and nothing’s changed that.”
Rohloff said the new language may actually help make the career choice to be a law enforcement officer an easier one.
“It’s tough to get someone into this profession as it is. Much less that they’re out there on their own without backing in some cases and they have decisions they have to make in an instant,” Rohloff said.
“There are situations we encounter where we have to make decisions quickly. We’re all human and we make mistakes. This gives them some legal standing to do what their education, experience, training, and background tell them to do in that instant.”
Weber and Rohloff also pointed to new language that increases penalties for those who elude unmarked vehicles and officers out of uniform.
Rohloff said there have been instances where people used that as a reason for not pulling over for emergency vehicles, but now anyone not pulling over for any vehicle flashing red lights can be subjected to misdemeanor charges. Weber said anyone trying to elude as an escape can now face heftier charges even if the pursuing vehicle is unmarked.
Reynolds signed the bill at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy on Thursday surrounded by officers from the state patrol, county sheriffs including Weber, police officers and other law enforcement agencies around the state.
The legislation makes rioting a felony offense, increases penalties on a range of other destructive behaviors, establishes qualified immunity, and increases due process protections for law enforcement. It also holds local governments accountable that prevent local law enforcement from doing their jobs.
“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,” Reynolds said Thursday. “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.”
The bill also bans discrimination in the enforcement of the law and establishes a process for citizens who believe their rights have been violated to file a complaint with the state Attorney General.
“Today’s bill illustrates an important truth: 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,” said Gov. Reynolds.
Governor Reynolds also signed HF 708 at ILEA, a separate bill creating a law enforcement equipment fund in the Department of Public Safety. It was seeded with $5 million in this year’s budget.
Another aspect of the Back the Blue law resets sheriff salaries across the state to be more congruent for counties of comparable size.
That could amount to substantial increase in pay for the Weber, Chief Deputy Will Conlee, Capt. Craig Burch and Jail Administrator John Canida, all whose salaries are tied as a percentage to Weber’s.
“There will be an effect on the salary and it should make the position more attractive in the future, but that will be Compensation Board decision and I will leave that up to them,” Weber said.
Rohloff said that language shouldn’t impact his current salary structure.
Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise said the County Compensation Board is expected to meet Monday evening to discuss the new law’s parameters and salary requirements.
Other aspects of the new law involve strengthening language for disorderly conduct and rioting.
“They made that almost zero tolerance, Weber said. “I’m a first amendment guy and will stand for people’s right to peaceably assembly. But it has to be peaceful.”
The law also provides some protection for drivers who accidentally hit people who are unlawfully blocking roadways with posted speed limits; adds penalties for people pointing lasers at law enforcement officers, and provides more protection for harassment of any law enforcement officer or firefighter, paid or volunteer.
State Sen. Jeff Reichman said there was rhetoric around the senate bill that it would hurt people who want to have a voice, but he said that’s not the case.
“That’s not what we’re doing at all. You see the difference between people that want to come out and have a voice vs. those throwing molotov cocktails and spraying graffitti on the capitol,” Reichman said.
“This will increase penalties for agitators who use mob mentality and work things into a frenzy.”
He said civilians would still have an avenue to seek penalties for perceived injustices at the hands of law enforcement, but it would be through the agency itself as they are responsible for the training and history of complaints.
“There are a lot of state’s losing officers left and right because they didn’t enact this type of legislation. It looks out for officers and protects them against some of these things.”