Iowa body camera case dismissed on technicality

State board deciding whether to refile charges against DCI, Burlington police to get video of 2015 officer-involved shooting of Autumn Steele

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A judge has dismissed, on procedural grounds, charges the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Burlington Police Department violated open records law by keeping secret body camera video of a fatal officer-involved shooting.

Karen Doland, an administrative law judge, ruled the Iowa Public Information Board failed to file a written order stating there was probable cause the law enforcement agencies broke the law by failing to release the recording of the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting of Autumn Steele.

“It appears the case was commenced ‘without following the prescribed procedure or decision-making process’,” Doland wrote in the Sept. 2 order.

The public information board could refile charges, but the board’s membership has changed and it’s unclear whether new members support the move. The board will consider whether to issue a written order no later than Oct. 21, Executive Director Charlie Smithson said.

“We all thought the Board’s decision on probable cause with notice to the parties was the final order,” Smithson said. The “ALJ disagreed.”

Steele’s family filed a complaint with the board in May 2015 after the Burlington Police, DCI and the Des Moines County Attorney refused to release most of a video from a body camera Officer Jesse Hill was wearing when he accidentally shot the 34-year-old mother in her front yard.

The family also wants cruiser dash-camera video and other records. The Burlington Hawk Eye filed a similar complaint with the board.

The Steele case is significant because it deals with whether the public should have access to body camera video in closed investigations. Many Iowa police agencies have touted the accountability that comes with body cameras, but some critics say police only release video when it makes them look good.

Board members twice rejected staff advice in 2015 to dismiss complaints from Steele’s family and the Hawk Eye and narrowly voted in December to file charges.

Since then, four board members concluded their terms and Gov. Terry Branstad appointed new people. The nine-member board now has three Democrats, five Republicans and one independent.

While Doland dismissed complaints against the DCI and Burlington Police Department, the complaint against the Des Moines County Attorney stands because the state board did file a written order against the office.

Smithson said the parties are trying to postpone a contested hearing scheduled for Oct. 21 until the board decides whether to refile charges against the DCI and police.

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