The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa has appealed a February ruling by the Iowa Public Information Board that could severely limit public access to information about officer-involved shootings and other investigations.
Responding to an ongoing effort by a Burlington family and the family’s legal representatives, the Public Information Board ruled in February that all records gathered as part of a criminal investigation can be considered part of a “peace officers’ investigative report” and are therefore exempt from open records requests – even following conclusion of a case.
The board’s ruling covers videos, 911 calls and other records.
If the board’s ruling stands, if mistakes are made by officers, they are not likely to be corrected.
The ACLU argues – and we agree – the board got the law wrong.
The board’s ruling and the ACLU appeal grew out of the shooting death of Autumn Steele in January 2015. Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill had responded to a domestic dispute involving Autumn Steele. Reacting to a barking dog at the scene of the dispute, which was reportedly attacking the officer, Hill drew his gun. Hill reportedly slipped, his gun discharged and Autumn Steele was hit and killed.
Neither law enforcement nor the family has alleged Hill deliberately shot Steele, and Hill was never charged with a crime.
At the same time, Steele’s family members contend Hill acted recklessly, saying his behavior was whitewashed by law enforcement in an effort to deflect accountability.
Last year, the family received a $2 million settlement from the city of Burlington to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. The judge in that case ordered the release of multiple videos and records.
The records released at that time include a report by the former Des Moines county attorney that cleared the officer of charges. That report excluded multiple witness statements at the scene that said the dog was not acting aggressively when Hill drew his gun.
While the Public Information Board found that Burlington police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation did not violate Iowa’s public records law, it shared the “complainants’ frustration with the lack of publicly available information after a police-involved shooting.”
Rita Bettis Austen, the ACLU of Iowa’s legal director, said the group has serious concerns about the public being denied access to video and other police records and urged Iowa lawmakers to clarify Iowa’s public records laws.
“Year after year, the Legislature has failed to tackle the need for separate body camera legislation, Bettis Austen told The Des Moines Register.
It’s legislation that needs to be addressed to serve the best interest of all Iowans