Government

Attorney: $2 million settlement in Burlington police shooting should prompt the release of records

Woman fatally shot by Burlington police officer in 2015

Rick Rahn, an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, responds to questions from attorney Patrick O’Connell during a Friday hearing in Des Moines before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland. The hearing concerned the release of records and video camera footage in the January 2015 shooting death of Autumn Steele in Burlington. (Photo by Erin Jordan/The Gazette)
Rick Rahn, an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, responds to questions from attorney Patrick O’Connell during a Friday hearing in Des Moines before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland. The hearing concerned the release of records and video camera footage in the January 2015 shooting death of Autumn Steele in Burlington. (Photo by Erin Jordan/The Gazette)
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DES MOINES — A $2 million civil settlement between the city of Burlington and the family of a woman fatally shot by police in 2015 should prompt the release of investigative records about the now-closed case, argues a prosecutor for the Iowa Public Information Board.

Mark McCormick said during a hearing Friday in Des Moines that the public should be able to see the investigative file to understand why Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers decided not to charge Officer Jesse Hill with any crime connected to shooting Autumn Steele, yet the city agreed last month to pay Steele’s family $2 million.

“Now the conflict between there being a settlement for some $2 million made to the representatives (of the Steele family) and the report made by the county attorney requires explanation,” McCormick said. “It will be necessary to obtain disclosure of at least some of the record.”

On Jan. 6, 2015, Officer Jesse Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call at Steele’s house, where the family dog rushed him, board records state. Hill fired his weapon and accidentally hit Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, killing her.

No criminal charges were filed against Hill, and he returned to work.

The Public Information Board charged the Burlington Police and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation in 2016 with violating Iowa’s Open Records Law by failing to release the bulk of the records about Steele’s death. So far, police have provided basic information about the case and 12 seconds of Hill’s body camera video — but her family seeks further disclosure.

The Steele case is significant because it deals with whether the public should have access to body camera video and other investigative materials 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.

Law enforcement agencies say blanket openness could endanger the privacy of people who call for help with a mental health crisis, domestic assault or child abuse.

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Friday’s four-hour contested case hearing included testimony from DCI Special Agent in Charge Rick Rahn and Burlington Police Chief Dennis Kramer. Questions for the officers dealt with what investigative information is made public — who, what, where and when, Rahn said — and what is kept private.

“We don’t provide anything that would be detrimental to the investigation,” Rahn said. The Burlington Police called in the DCI to investigate the officer-involved shooting.

Whether information about Steele’s death should have been made public after the case was closed is a critical question. While the DCI did turn over a report to Beavers so she could decide whether to charge Hill, “reports rarely get completed,” Rahn said. “There’s always a flow of information that continues to come in.”

McCormick called no witnesses, instead relying on legal arguments connected to previously decided cases.

He’s asked Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland to either require the law enforcement agencies to turn over the full investigative record because much of it has already been part of discovery in the civil case or release specific records, including the 911 recording and the full body camera video, as a requirement of Iowa’s Open Records Law.

Doland gave attorneys until Sept. 4 to submit final briefs in the case. She will then issue a recommended decision to the public information board, which can accept or reject her decision. The board’s vote can be appealed through the court system.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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