Public Safety

Details released in fatal police shooting of Autumn Steele

Authorities sought to withhold the details from public release

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)

A Burlington police officer seeking to fend off a charging dog by firing two gunshots didn’t immediately realize he struck the woman he was called to check on, but then quickly feared he would go to prison for the shooting, records released Wednesday show.

The Jan. 6, 2015, fatal shooting of Autumn Steele by Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill has long been questioned by Steele’s family and has raised questions about how secretive authorities can be in withholding information in an officer-involved shooting that was captured on police body camera video.

Warning: This video of the shooting contains graphic violence and language

In response to a federal wrongful death lawsuit, the city of Burlington agreed last month to pay Steele’s estate, including her husband, two sons and her mother, a $2 million settlement. And with the conclusion of that case, a federal judge authorized evidence that until now had been sealed to be made public — over the objections of the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

That release happened Wednesday afternoon, after parties in the case agreed on some redactions to protect privacy.

According to the now-released transcript of Hill’s body camera video, the officer was shocked to learn he struck Steele.

“Where are you shot, ma’am? Ma’am, ma’am where are you hit? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” the transcript shows Hill called out.

A few moments later, he tells a fellow officer: “ (Expletive) Tim. I’m (expletive) going to prison. Oh my God.”

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Hill’s statement about his fears of “going to prison” did not make it into initial police reports.

Officers administered CRP to Steele, but she later died.

Wednesday’s release of the records was the first time the public has heard a substantial statement from Hill, who investigators cleared of criminal wrongdoing. He since returned to the Burlington force.

During an interview following the shooting, Hill told investigators he was dispatched to the Steele house on a domestic abuse call, according to a transcript.

When he arrived, he saw the couple engaged in a verbal argument in the front yard. Gabriel Steele was holding their then 3-year-old son, while Autumn Steele was striking her husband with her hands on his back and head, Hill reported.

The couple’s German shepherd, Sammy, was unleashed nearby.

“While running toward the individuals I yelled for them to ‘stop’ and during my initial contact I proceeded to put both hands on Autumn’s shoulders to remove her from further assaulting Gabriel,” Hill reported in a narrative of the incident. As he touched Steele, Hill felt what he thought was the dog bite his thigh, records state.

Hill broke contact with Autumn Steele and asked the couple to “get their dog” as he backed away from the animal.

“The dog began advancing toward me with its teeth showing and I drew my duty weapon and pointed at a downward angle toward the dog and fired a shot,” Hill reported.

As Hill continued to move backward, he slipped on the snow-covered sidewalk, sending a second shot upward.

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“So you were in fear for your life because Sammy jumped on you?” the family’s attorney asked in a deposition with Hill.

“I was in fear of my safety and my well-being, yes,” Hill said.

Records show Dr. Brandon Beauchamp, an emergency medicine doctor with the Great River Medical Center in West Burlington, confirmed Hill had a dog bite on his left thigh. Beauchamp noted Hill had moderate pain and the wound was red. Police reports show Hill’s pants were not torn, but there was one small hole. Hill also had back strain from falling, the doctor noted.

In addition to filing the federal lawsuit, Steele’s family has fought for more than three years for the public release of the investigative records.

“We believe these are records the people of Burlington have a right to see,” said Adam Klein, a Georgia lawyer who represents Steele’s family. “When the County Attorney and his (Hill’s) superiors say ‘he didn’t do anything wrong’ the people have the right to know the facts. The facts released before today were far from complete and far from honest.”

Law enforcement agencies have said they had complied with Iowa’s public records law in making public 12 seconds of the body camera video and basic details about the incident.

The family and the Burlington Hawk-Eye newspaper filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, which decided in October 2016 there was probable cause the law enforcement agencies had violated Iowa’s Open Records Law. There was a contested case hearing on these charges in July, but it does not appear the administrative law judge has ruled, Klein said.

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