CEDAR RAPIDS — An Iowa open records advocate is calling on Cedar Rapids officials to release the name of a city employee who prompted the evacuation of a city building after brandishing a shotgun at work last week.
Authorities have cited medical privacy in withholding the name because the gunman, who threatened to use the weapon on himself, was transported to a hospital. They’ve said the name will be released if the man is charged with a crime, which at this point has not happened.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the public records law calls for releasing time, date, location and immediate facts and circumstances — including the names of people involved — tied to a police incident report. And, police don’t withhold names in other instances, such as if a person was in a traffic accident and transported to the hospital, he said.
“It is a disservice to the people of Cedar Rapids, people who live near this guy, people who have kids in school with his kids,” Evans said. “The public has the right to know what is going on so they can govern themselves appropriately and the city doesn’t want to let the people of Cedar Rapids in on the secret. I don’t think this was the intent when the public record law was written.”
No shots were fired and no one was injured during the incident, which lasted about an hour last Wednesday morning. Co-workers reported being frightened and anxious, and staff at the building, which has about 375 employees, were sent home for the remainder of the day.
Authorities said they believe the gunman was dealing with extreme personal issues and don’t believe the episode was work related.
Tom Conley, president of The Conley Group Inc., of Urbandale, which specializes in security and risk management, said it sounds like a crime was committed, and if so charges should be filed. However, he defended withholding the name and not yet filing charges. If police took the gunman directly to jail, rather than the hospital, police would be second guessed for not getting the man professional help, he said.
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“The problem may be it may not be real clear from the police investigation what crime was committed,” Conley said. “They are not lawyers. Once you get into nuances, ‘What was the intent? What exactly did he do and say?’ sometimes it takes far more examination of the law.”
Authorities have two years to file charges, he said. As far as releasing the man’s name, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — or HIPAA — which requires confidentiality of medical information, is more restrictive when it comes to mental health, he said.
Evans, though, said HIPAA is often misused in restricting public information, and said the mere fact the man was taken to the hospital for evaluation doesn’t seal off the prior interaction he had with the government and police.
“If an incident like this unfolded at Quaker Oats or any of the big employers in Cedar Rapids and police were called and the hostage negotiators had to be called into action, and someone was taken into custody at the end of the stand off, the name would be released,” Evans said.
Jim Tomkovicz, a professor of law at University of Iowa, said, in general, prosecutors exercise discretion in criminal cases and can decide charges are not the most constructive or appropriate response.
“A person may have a mental health issue and may not appear to be an ongoing threat to the public — especially if routed into a treatment program — despite what he or she has done on one occasion,” Tomkovicz wrote in an email. “Or, there may be other unique, extenuating circumstances that counsel against use of the criminal justice system to address a specific episode.”
Cedar Rapids officials stood by their decisions on Monday.
Greg Buelow, spokesman for the Cedar Rapids police, said the incident remains under investigation. The department has been consistent in releasing names when an individual has threatened to harm themselves, he said. Police are working with the county attorney to determine if charges are appropriate.
“We have been consistent in not releasing the name of an individual who has threatened to harm himself or herself, or those that have taken their own life by committing suicide,” Buelow said. “This has been consistent regardless of who or where the incident occurred. The only time that we have released the name of someone that committed suicide has involved cases in which the individual harmed others as well.” Buelow said the man involved in the incident is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation, and it is unclear if the man remains in the hospital because police are not privy to the information due to medical confidentiality.
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Mark Hudson, an attorney at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll, of Cedar Rapids, said the city, as an employer, must follow a process in determining the man’s employment status. They may wish to allow, and perhaps even help, the man get the mental health help he needs, he said.
“The reality is the options are to terminate or discipline him,” he said.
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