Lack of transparency not helping with trust
Much of the relationship between the people and their governments is built on trust.
But that relationship is fragile — especially when government goes out of its way to keep the public in the dark.
That’s occurring too often in Iowa with video recordings made by law enforcement agencies, especially when an officer takes someone’s life or when an officer’s actions are questioned.
The lack of public access to these videos was back in the news last week during a meeting of the Iowa Public Information Board. The Legislature needs to end these unwise secrecy practices.
The headlines dealt with a Burlington woman who was accidentally killed by a police officer when he tried to shoot her dog as it lunged toward him. The officer’s two shots missed the dog, but one bullet struck Autumn Steele, 34.
Not surprisingly, her family wants to see police body camera and squad car dash camera videos of the incident, which occurred on Jan. 6, 2015. But two and a half years later, Burlington police, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Attorney General Tom Miller’s office still refuse to let the family or public see the recordings.
The Steele case is not an aberration, unfortunately.
On April 29, Matthew Rodrigues, 27, was arrested outside a West Des Moines motel after a woman reported being sexually assaulted in her room there. The victim said her attacker was a Hispanic man known as Junior and was wearing a shirt with “Houston” written on it. The attacker also was a guest at the motel, the victim said, and they met in the lobby.
Rodrigues told police he had been visiting a friend at the motel when officers approached him. He denied being involved.
Rodrigues spent 11 days in jail. He was released when a judge dismissed the sexual assault charge.
The same day that Rodrigues was freed, a man from Houston, Texas, was charged with the crime. That man’s middle name is Junior, and he had been staying at the motel.
Rodrigues believes police ended their investigation too hastily after officers saw him, a brown- skinned man, outside the motel. Surveillance video from the motel lobby would corroborate that he never met the victim, he said.
But police have refused to make available to journalists that video or any police videos public because they are part of an ongoing investigation.
In another case, a woman was fatally shot by a Des Moines police officer on July 5. Tiffany Potter, 29, was being followed for reasons police have declined to make public. She was wounded after trying to flee on foot from her car. Police said Potter first fired her gun.
Put yourself in the shoes of Potter’s mother: Her daughter is dead; she knows her daughter had drug problems; now she just wants to see what occurred that tragic night.
Officers initially told the mother she could watch the videos then. But when she said a lawyer would accompany her, police changed their minds and said she would have to wait until the investigation ends in four to six weeks.
Police declined requests from journalists to make public the body camera and dash camera videos, although Des Moines officers typically release those videos after a case is closed.
Here we have three cases that all involve police videos, but there is no consistent public access to these recordings.
Autumn Steele’s family has waited two and a half years with no guarantee they will ever get to see the recordings. Tiffany Potter’s family has been told they will have to wait four to six weeks to see them, but the public has no assurance it will ever get to view the videos. And the public has no inkling whether they will get to see recordings of the West Des Moines incident as Matthew Rodrigues tries to remove the stain on his name brought on by his arrest for a sex crime he did not commit.
The public is grateful for the important service Iowa’s law officers provide every day. But that gratitude should not prevent people from occasionally asking questions about officers’ actions.
Next year, the Legislature needs to revise Iowa’s public records law to provide for consistent access statewide to police videos in controversial cases such as these.
Government will never build and maintain public confidence in our police by allowing this secrecy to remain. Transparency should be mandatory — not optional — in cases like these.
• Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization that supports government transparency. Comments: IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com