Iowa bill would require police to release records in closed investigations

Family of Autumn Steele, accidentally killed by police, want body camera video, other information

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Family and friends of Autumn Steele have many questions about the day the 34-year-old mom was accidentally shot and killed by a Burlington police officer.

Why was Officer Jesse Hill holding a gun when responding to a domestic disturbance in Steele’s front yard?

Did Steele’s dog bite Hill as the officer alleged?

How many shots were fired?

Steele’s supporters think most of these questions could be answered with the video from the body camera Hill was wearing during the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting, as well as cruiser dash-camera video and other records.

But local and state law enforcement agencies have refused to release most of the records, saying the law allows them to keep investigative material secret even after a case is closed.

“There’s so much we don’t know,” Steele’s mother, Gina Colbert of Columbus, Ga., said in a phone interview. “There’s no way to arrive at any kind of closure.”

Open government advocates are asking Iowa lawmakers this session to change the law so police are required to release information once a case is closed if it doesn’t endanger a person’s life. Senate Study Bill 3088 also would launch a study of the use, storage, public inspection and confidentiality of body camera video.


Meanwhile, the Iowa Public Information Board is contesting the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s decision not to release records of Steele’s shooting. An administrative law judge will hear the case, which could carry a civil fine.

“The idea that you can have a case and have it closed and that information goes into a black hole never to be seen again doesn’t speak to transparency,” said Bill Monroe, a board member and retired Iowa Newspaper Association director.

“Transparency leads to people having an opportunity to review these cases. It isn’t just for the press — it’s for the people,” he said.

The Iowa DCI investigated 27 officer-involved shootings in 2014 and 2015. Half those resulted in fatalities — two when people committed suicide. The DCI doesn’t track the race of people involved in shootings, but police booking photos and descriptions indicate three were black and two others Hispanic.

Prosecutors who reviewed the officer-involved shootings determined all were justified.

‘They’re working for us’

Fred Cailey, 77, of Stockport, saw a story in the Van Buren County Register about a police chase that ended with Fairfield Police firing shots at two teenagers.

“I read the report in the paper and I had questions,” Cailey said.

What was the initial offense that started the chase?

Why did Fairfield police decide to shoot?

Could police have resolved this differently?

Cailey called Van Buren County Attorney Abe Watkins, who had determined the shooting was justified. Watkins told Cailey to call the DCI, which said the agency would not release investigative materials about the shooting — even though the case was closed.

“Maybe everything was 100 percent on the up and up, but who knows?” Cailey said. “They’re working for us, but in this case, they’re not working for us.”

Citizens, including Cailey, asked for police records in five officer-involved shootings in the past two years, including Steele’s. In each case, the DCI used Iowa Code Section 22.7(5) as justification for not releasing the records.

The code reads: “Peace officers’ investigative reports, and specific portions of electronic mail and telephone billing records of law enforcement agencies if that information is part of an ongoing investigation, except where disclosure is authorized elsewhere in this Code” may be kept confidential.

A Polk County judge ruled, because of the placement of the comma, only email and phone billing records should be made public after an investigation is over — meaning other materials could be kept secret.

But open government advocates argue there’s no reason to hide records in closed cases — particularly in a time when trust in police is low because of racially charged police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore, Chicago and Minneapolis.

“Let us see the evidence and we can clear this up,” said Barb Reed of Marion, who joined a group pushing for release of records about the Steele shooting. “If we taxpayers are paying for all these body cameras, we should have the right to see this.”

Law enforcement agencies often release video when it proves officers did the right thing.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness decided in 2011 to release video of an Iowa City standoff.

Police went to Chad Newmire’s house after Newmire told family and friends he was having suicidal thoughts. Newmire told police he had a gun tucked into his waistband and, after 40 minutes of negotiations, started to reach for the weapon.

Officers fired bullets, so-called bean bag rounds — rounds fired as shotgun shells — and a stun gun at Newmire, who was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.

“I looked at it as this would be information very important for the public to have,” Lyness said about the video.

Des Moines lawyer Michael Giudicessi gave other examples of police showing videos that cast them in a good light.

“In May 2015, the Iowa Highway Patrol released dash camera video of a state trooper’s valiant effort to administer CPR to a motorist,” Giudicessi wrote in a brief filed in September with the state Public Information Board.

The University of Iowa police gave the media unedited body camera videos relating to the Dec. 5, 2014, removal of public art that depicted a Ku Klux Klan robe and a subsequent student confrontation, the brief stated.

But officials want to maintain their right to keep investigative materials confidential.

“To try to legislate, it gets sticky,” said Judy Bradshaw, director of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and former chief of the Des Moines Police Department. “I think you allow individual chiefs and sheriffs to develop their own policies.”

Bradshaw pointed to times when police enter private houses for a mental health crisis, reported domestic assault or child abuse. Would those body camera videos also be public?

Proposed changes to Chapter 22.7(5) must be heard by a State Government subcommittee before Friday or the bill will die, said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, committee chairman.

“I think there are some good ideas in the bill,” he said. “We need to look more closely at the use of body cameras.”

Fairfield Police Department vehicle pursuit and shots fired, June 2, 2015

Map by John McGlothlen / The Gazette. Press above to advance through map notes about the pursuit.

One-third of officer-involved shootings in Iowa in the past two years involved police shooting at people in moving vehicles, despite evidence these maneuvers are risky, often avoidable and banned in many metropolitan police departments.

In nine shootings, Iowa law enforcement officers fired at people in vehicles, usually during or after a chase. In most cases, the driver accelerated toward an officer’s body or cruiser or the officer feared that was going to happen.

“My husband is a police officer and I want him to come home at night,” said Gayle Rhineberger-Dunn, a University of Northern Iowa associate criminology professor. “I would have a hard time being upset if he shot at a vehicle.”

But as a criminologist, Rhineberger-Dunn questions whether shooting at a person in a moving car is the right choice.

“Why are we there? What has the person done? Are they a threat to others?” she asked. “It behooves us to examine the outcomes of those cases and whether or not we should be shooting at moving vehicles.”

Case study

Fairfield Police Officer Kathy Blumhagen was on an overnight patrol June 2 last year when she spotted a sedan spray-painted blue. She typed in the license plate, but got one of the letters wrong and the plate appeared to be registered to another vehicle.

“It looked suspicious and she wanted to investigate it further, which is part of her job,” Fairfield Police Capt. Colin Smith said.

Blumhagen put on her lights, but Dakota Murray, 19, of Keosauqua didn’t pull over. He made several turns before gathering speed and heading south out of Fairfield on Highway 1, according to the dash-camera recording obtained by The Gazette.

The chase reached 95 mph at one point, but eventually slowed as Murray’s car started to leak some sort of fluid.

“You could at least make this a little more interesting,” Blumhagen quipped about five minutes into the chase.

Three minutes later, Murray veered onto a gravel road, skidding into a U-turn and reversing into a ditch.

Blumhagen and Fairfield Sgt. David Wall, guns drawn, ran toward the car and, apparently afraid the teen could drive it up the embankment, started firing. One, two, three, four, five shots fired, one through the windshield.

“God’s looking out for them tonight,” Blumhagen told other officers after learning neither Murray, nor his passenger, a 16-year-old girl, was hit.

Murray was charged and convicted with eluding police and sentenced to two years prison.

Is it justified?

Van Buren County Attorney Abe Watkins determined the actions of Fairfield Police were justified. That’s because Iowa law allows law enforcement officers to use deadly force if they believe their lives or the lives of others are at risk.

“If you’re using a car as a deadly weapon against an officer, the officer could use deadly force,” said Russ Rigdon, legal instructor for the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of police who have fired shots at moving vehicles even when the cars are driving away, Rigdon said.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden determined the March 29 shooting of Kyle R. Orth, 28, of Cedar Rapids, by Cedar Rapids police was justified after Orth led police on a chase, crashed into a telephone pole and drove at two officers.

Orth was sentenced in December to six months in jail for drunken driving and eluding police.

Risks outweigh benefits

But law enforcement experts say shooting at moving vehicles is generally a bad idea.

“You may not hit the intended target. You could hit a passenger or some civilian outside the car,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor who studies use of force. “If you happen to hit the driver, then you’ve got an unguided missile.”

A better option would be to get out of the way, he said.

“If an officer has time to pull his gun and shoot, he has time to take two or three steps back and avoid the vehicle,” Alpert said.

Many police departments in major cities have banned shooting at moving vehicles unless the person in the car is threatening the officer or someone else with deadly force other than the vehicle.

“Moving into or remaining in the path of a moving vehicle, whether deliberate or inadvertent, SHALL NOT be justification for discharging a firearm at the vehicle or any of its occupants,” states the Philadelphia Police Department directive on use of force. “An officer in the path of an approaching vehicle shall attempt to move to a position of safety rather than discharging a firearm at the vehicle or any of the occupants of the vehicle.” (Capital letters used by the department.)

Cities with similar prohibitions include Denver, New York City and Los Angeles.

Cedar Rapids and Iowa City police departments allow officers to shoot at moving vehicles only “as a last resort to prevent death or substantial harm to officers or other people.”

Perceived threat

Law enforcement officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about potential threats and lawyers who review officer-involved shootings tend to give officers the benefit of the doubt.

“Whether the officer perceived a threat is up to the officer,” said Watkins, Van Buren County prosecutor.

A Waterloo man filed a federal lawsuit in July against the city of Waterloo, claiming Waterloo Police officers lied about an April 5 officer-involved shooting.

Police said Jovan Webb, 28, who police wanted to talk with about a fight, bumped Sgt. Steven Bose with the front of his car as Webb tried to drive out of a parking lot. Bose dove to the ground to avoid being hit, but other officers thought Bose had been struck or was being dragged by Webb’s car, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office reported.

Webb faces charges of assault, interference and carrying a weapon.

Webb’s lawsuit claimed he was unfairly targeted by police because he is black. He claimed he had nothing to do with the fight, and when he tried to drive away police blocked his exit and then shot him five times.

Both parties agreed to dismiss the suit Feb. 5 because of the criminal case.

Often a review of officer-involved shootings shows things police could have done differently to de-escalate the conflict. The Van Buren County shooting will be used as a training scenario for Fairfield Police, Smith said.

“There were some instances the officers could have done things better,” he said. “Overall, they followed our policies to the letter. That’s really all we can ask of them.”

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