The Iowa Public Information Board took no action Monday on a four-year-old public records dispute over whether Burlington Police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation should have released records about a 2015 fatal shooting by a police officer.
The board came out of an hour-long closed session without deciding whether to approve an administrative law judge’s ruling that the law enforcement agencies broke public records law by keeping secret records about the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting of Autumn Steele.
“All we are asking this board to do is what a prosecutor and a judge have already done,” said Gina Colbert, Steele’s mother, who drove from Georgia to attend Monday’s meeting in Des Moines. “Tell the police they have to tell the truth.
“They can’t just file the truth away because it contradicts the story they want to tell.”
Jeff Peterzalek, with the DCI, said law enforcement agencies have the authority to decide which records go into an investigative report and that everything within those files should remain confidential.
“The DCI has provided a multi-page report with all the immediate facts and circumstances, which is all that is required,” he said.
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Patrick O’Connell, representing the Burlington Police, said the law does not allow for a balancing test weighing the public’s right to know against the value of confidentiality.
“One of the jobs of the law is predictability,” he said. “That would really be set aside if this proposed order is adopted.”
Mark McCormick, who prosecuted the public records dispute for the board, said body camera video, 911 recordings and police dash camera video are not investigative records because they happen during the course of regular police business.
“It’s giving control of what constitutes a protected element of evidence to the DCI without any provision for judicial scrutiny,” he said.
Board members asked questions of each attorney.
“Are you saying, as a matter of law, body camera, 911 recordings and dash camera video are never part of a peace officer’s investigative report?” Keith Luchtel asked McCormick.
“In some cases they may be, but if a police officer is going to a call, there is no report made by that dashcam,” McCormick said. “In many counties in Iowa, the local authorities will release bodycam and dashcams to the public. They don’t put them in an investigative file.”
Luchtel pointed out other police agencies have kept body camera video confidential. These discrepancies are the reason the board filed legislation to make body camera video public in most cases.
Board President Mary Ungs-Sogaard asked the DCI’s Peterzalek if he thinks investigative files ever lose that status.
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“The status of it doesn’t change,” he said. “The idea it loses its protective status after an investigation is concluded is not the law.”
Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill shot Steele after responding to domestic disturbance at her house. He found Steele and her husband, Gabriel Steele, arguing in the yard. As Hill tried to stop Autumn Steele from striking her husband, the family dog bit Hill’s leg, Hill told investigators after the shooting.
Hill fired his weapon twice, but slipped in the snow and accidentally hit Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, killing her. No criminal charges were filed against Hill and he was allowed to return to work.
A federal judge in September ordered release of the body camera video and other records after conclusion of a wrongful-death lawsuit, in which Steele’s family won $2 million from the city. A decision by the public records board could affect how other law enforcement agencies deal with public records in future.
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