Iowa board considers whether police records should be kept secret

Family of Burlington woman accidentally shot by officer wants answers

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An Iowa board formed to ensure access to public records is considering a ruling that would keep all police investigative records secret — even after a case is closed.

The Iowa Public Information Board is deciding whether the Burlington Police Department and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation must release records about a January incident in which a Burlington police officer accidentally shot and killed a woman.

“A police officer comes up on a chaotic scene, a dog attacks him,” Jo Martin, a board member and semiretired vice president for TimesCitizen Communications in Iowa Falls, said at a meeting Thursday in Des Moines. “Perhaps he made a mistake and shot in the wrong direction. What led up to that is something the public really should see.”

Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call at Autumn Steele’s house, where he was attacked by a dog, according to the board. Trying to defend himself, Hill fired his weapon and accidentally hit Steele, killing her. No criminal charges were filed against Hill and he returned to work.

The DCI has released a wobbly 12-second video it asserts covers the shooting. But Steele’s family and the local newspaper want more answers.

Attorneys representing the family and the Burlington Hawk Eye filed complaints with the board this spring, seeking a 911 call transcript and police videos of the Jan. 6 shooting.

Charlie Smithson, the board’s executive director, issued a preliminary order saying the investigative materials would fall into exclusions allowed by Iowa’s Open Records law.

He cites a Polk County case in which a judge determined — based on the placement of a comma in Iowa Code Section 22.7(5) — that police officers’ investigative materials may be kept secret.

The code says: “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.

The Polk County judge ruled that the “if that information is part of an ongoing investigation” clause pertained only to electronic mail and telephone billing records — not all investigative reports, Smithson wrote.

Assistant Attorney General Jeff Peterzalek, assigned to represent the Iowa Department of Public Safety, agreed with Smithson. Complete disclosure of investigative materials could result in autopsy photos splashed across newspapers’ front pages, he argued. However, autopsy records are not specifically mentioned in Chapter 22.7(5) and are covered in another section.

“The board’s responsibility is to ensure compliance with the law for all parties, including the custodian of the records,” Peterzalek told the board. Law enforcement “got it right; they followed the law.”

Several board members disputed this interpretation, citing previous cases in which investigative materials were made public after a case was closed.

“I’m not comfortable approving the recommendation as it stands today,” said Gary Mohr, a community college administrator from Bettendorf. “I think it’s our responsibility to err on the side of ‘not so fast’.”

The board voted unanimously to delay voting on Smithson’s order. Deputy Director Margaret Johnson said she expects the staff will do more research and bring the issue forward again at an Aug. 20 meeting.

The board proposed legislation earlier this year that would have amended Iowa Code to include a balancing test of whether the public good of viewing a record would outweigh confidentiality concerns, but the change was not approved. The nine-member group, formed in 2012, includes representatives from the media, government, and the public. The board has the authority to issue civil fines of up to $2,500.

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