Government

Body camera public records case set for October hearing

At dispute is whether video, other police records from Autumn Steele shooting in Burlington should be public

A memorial, photographed in September 2015, outside the former home of Autumn Steele, a woman shot and killed by an Iowa police officer, in Burlington, Iowa. (Photo for The Washington Post by Daniel Acker)
A memorial, photographed in September 2015, outside the former home of Autumn Steele, a woman shot and killed by an Iowa police officer, in Burlington, Iowa. (Photo for The Washington Post by Daniel Acker)
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A judge is to decide whether Iowa law enforcement officials broke Iowa’s open records law by refusing to release body camera video and other records from a 2015 fatal officer-involved shooting in Burlington.

The contested hearing, scheduled for Oct. 21 in Des Moines before administrative law judge Karen Doland, could have broad implications for whether the public can view body camera video and other police records.

The family of Autumn Steele filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board in May 2015 after the Burlington Police Department and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation 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 on Jan. 6, 2015.

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

Those complaints have been merged for the Oct. 21 hearing, expected to last one day.

Mark McCormick, a former Iowa Supreme Court justice, is prosecuting the case on behalf of the board, created in 2012 to enforce Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws. He and attorneys for the Burlington Police, Des Moines County Attorney and the DCI plan to call witnesses.

Doland plans to later submit written findings to the board, which can accept or reject them. The board has authority to levy civil penalties of up to $2,500 for a knowing violation and force agencies to make record public. Decisions can be appealed to district court.

The Steele case highlights the uncertainty of whether the public should have access to body camera video. 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.

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Police argue body cameras can show citizens in private, often difficult moments and the videos shouldn’t always be public.

The hearing is likely to involve a disputed exemption to public records law that 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 confidential.

Some courts have ruled the comma after “investigation” indicates only electronic mail and telephone billing records could be made public after an investigation is closed.

Board staff and other open-government advocates have pushed to tweak the law to require agencies to release more records, but proposed changes have failed at the Statehouse.

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