In an episode that has tested the legal authority of police in Iowa to keep secret the details of their own conduct, a federal judge Tuesday ordered that police body camera video and other materials surrounding the 2015 fatal shooting of mother Autumn Steele by a Burlington officer be made public within weeks.
The order comes in a federal wrongful death suit that Steele’s family filed against the city of Burlington and Officer Jesse Hill. The suit was settled earlier this month when the city and Hill agreed to pay $2 million.
Randy Evans, executive director of Iowa Freedom of Information Council, asked the federal court to unseal documents in the case, arguing that the public has a common law right to examine them.
The council, which represents several Iowa new organizations, argued the secrecy “undermines the accountability of government officials and the public’s acceptance of any result reached through use of the federal judiciary.”
Authorities have said Hill accidentally shot and killed Steele when police were responding to a call at her home and were being attacked by a dog. Hill was cleared of any wrongdoing and remains on the force.
In the wrongful death suit, Autumn’s husband, Gabriel Steele, her mother, Gina Colbert, and the couple’s two sons, asserted Hill fired his gun in an “unreasonable, unnecessary and reckless manner” on Jan. 6, 2015, striking and killing Autumn Steele in her front yard. The family claimed the Burlington Police Department hadn’t properly trained Hill or provided supervision in the use of deadly force.
Although 12 seconds of the body camera video has been released, the city of Burlington and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have kept the full record of the incident from the public for three years.
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The Steele family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper filed complaints with the Iowa Public Information Board, arguing Burlington police and the DCI have violated Iowa open records law by not releasing the files under an open records request.
Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland, who is presiding over the open records case, has given attorneys until Sept. 4 to file final briefs.
Earlier this month, the city argued to U.S. Federal District Judge James Gritzner in Davenport that he would prejudice the city in the open records case if he unsealed the materials.
Gritzner, in his order Tuesday, disagreed.
“If the court’s judicial records were beholden to Iowa’s confidentiality (rules), then certain records filed in conjunction with motions filed for summary judgment could never be released, even if ‘the relevant fact and circumstances of the particular case’ dictated those records carried the strongest presumption of access,” he wrote. “This plainly conflicts with federal law ... right of access to judicial records — and where ’there is a conflict between the Iowa Public Records Act and federal law, it is the state statute that must give way.”
The judge gave lawyers for the city 14 days to remove from the records personal identifiers such as “birth dates, personal addresses and Social Security numbers.” He said he would review the redactions before releasing the records, but noted that “no substantive redactions to the sealed summary judgment records will be allowed.”
The Hawk Eye reported that attempts to reach the Burlington City Attorney Martha Shaff to see if they city intended to appeal were unsuccessful. Burlington Police Chief Dennis Kramer and City Manager Jim Ferneau declined to comment, the Hawk Eye said.
Included in the documents ordered to be released are the body camera videos from Hill and Officer Tim Merryman, Hill’s medical records and the DCI’s investigative files.
Andy Hoffman of the Burlington Hawk Eye contributed.