Public Safety

Burlington public records case goes to hearing

Contested case hearing happens more than three years after Autumn Steele fatally shot by police

Autumn Steele, shown here with her sons, was fatally shot by a Burlington Police officer Jan. 6, 2015.  Her family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board to get law enforcement agencies to release information about the now-closed investigation. (submitted photo)
Autumn Steele, shown here with her sons, was fatally shot by a Burlington Police officer Jan. 6, 2015. Her family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board to get law enforcement agencies to release information about the now-closed investigation. (submitted photo)

More than three years after Autumn Steele was fatally shot in her front yard by a Burlington Police officer, a judge Friday will hear the case over whether law enforcement agencies broke the law by keeping secret records from the now-closed investigation.

The contested case hearing has been delayed several times, but Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland on Thursday ruled against another request for a continuance, according to Margaret Johnson, director of the Iowa Public Information Board.

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 Burlington Police and the Iowa Division of Investigation (DCI) so far have released only 12 seconds of Hill’s body camera recording.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper filed complaints with the Iowa Public Information Board in 2015 to make public other information about the case.

“For 254 days, we have looked for answers about what happened that morning,” Gina Colbert, Steele’s mother, told the board during a September 2015 meeting. “We have received precious few.”

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.

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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.

Steele’s family agreed last month to settle a federal wrongful death lawsuit for $2 million. Through the lawsuit, the family has viewed or received many of the investigative documents, but they still want the public to know what happened.

Colbert, who lives in Georgia, plans to listen into the hearing through a conference call Friday, she said.

The hearing starts at 9 a.m. in the Wallace Building. Doland will issue a recommended decision in the days following the hearing to the public information board, which can accept or reject her decision. The board’s vote can be appealed through the court system.

The public information board, formed in 2012, is a nine-person board charged with enforcing Iowa’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws. The group may impose civil penalties of up to $2,500 for knowing violations.

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

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