A state board wants to make public the videos from police body cameras, with limited exceptions, so Iowans have the right to view recordings of high-profile incidents such as officer-involved shootings.
A bill filed in advance of the legislative session that starts this month by the Iowa Public Information Board seeks to prevent future public records battles, such as one that has mired the board since 2015 over the video of a fatal police shooting of a Burlington woman.
“We thought, ‘How would we write a law so that we wouldn’t have had the problems we had with the Burlington video?’” said Margaret Johnson, the board’s executive director, about the proposal to amend Iowa Code Chapter 22.
In that case, the Burlington Police Department and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation refused to release the bulk of a body camera video, as well as other records, about the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting of Autumn Steele by Burlington police Officer Jesse Hill.
A federal judge ordered release of the video in September, after a $2 million settlement with Steele’s family, but the board still is wrangling with the legal question of whether law enforcement agencies broke Chapter 22, Iowa’s open records law, by not initially releasing the records.
The board will hold oral arguments Jan. 28 over an appeal by the DCI and the Burlington Police Department of an October ruling that body camera video, 911 recordings and squad car dash camera video don’t get blanket confidentiality.
The public information board last year proposed the Iowa Legislature create a committee to study changing Iowa’s law to address body camera video, but lawmakers did not act.
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“When that didn’t come together, we thought let’s go ahead anyway,” Johnson said. “We studied it ourselves.”
The nine-person board, created in 2012, had a three-person subcommittee review similar laws in Illinois and Wisconsin and get input from Iowans attending board meetings to draft the proposed legislation, Johnson said.
The pre-filed bill says body camera video is public except in cases including when the subjects of the videos have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as when they are in their homes or they are a witness to a crime or victim.
The proposed bill says people arrested for a crime don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. If the subject of a video is a witness or victim, he or she would have the opportunity to give written permission for the video to be released, the proposal states. Law enforcement agencies would be allowed to redact parts that may be exempt.
“We wanted to respect the privacy of people who, through no fault of their own, suddenly are part of a police video,” Johnson said. “But we wanted to err on the side of openness if there is an officer-involved shooting or use of force.”
So far, no lawmakers have said they will sponsor the bill, Johnson said. The Iowa Legislature convenes Jan. 14.
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