Law enforcement experts disagree about whether a Burlington police officer should have fired his gun at a threatening dog — an action that mistakenly killed the dog’s owner.
“The bottom line is you don’t shoot unless you know what is behind your target,” said David Klinger, a University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor and former police officer. “Your safety and making sure you’re not bit by a dog doesn’t take precedence over someone else’s life.”
Klinger is one of three law enforcement experts The Gazette asked to review the seven-minute body camera video of Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill, who fatally shot Autumn Steele on Jan. 6, 2015, in her yard.
The city of Burlington agreed last month to pay Steele’s estate, including her husband, two sons and her mother, a $2 million settlement to end a federal wrongful death lawsuit. A federal judge authorized release of the body camera video and other investigative records this week over objections from Burlington police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
Investigators cleared Hill of criminal wrongdoing and allowed him to return to the police force.
Was deadly force necessary?
Just a few seconds into the video, Hill is seen running up to Autumn and Gabriel Steele’s yard, where the couple is having an argument. The Steele’s 3-year-old son is crying and the couple’s dog, a German shepherd named Sammy, is barking and growling as Hill tells Autumn Steele to stop hitting her husband.
“He’s got my kid!” she shouts seconds before two shots are fired in quick succession.
Hill later told investigators he fired at the dog, which had bit his thigh, but slipped in the snow and struck Autumn Steele.
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“The dog’s instinct was to protect his masters against this intruder,” said Tom Conley, president and chief executive officer of the Conley Group, a private security company in Urbandale. Conley, who served in the Navy police for nearly 30 years, reviewed the body camera video frame by frame.
“You can hear the dog growling and immediately, bang, bang,” he said.
Conley said he thinks Hill was justified in shooting if he thought his life was at risk.
“I can’t imagine he was going to fire on that dog unless he felt a deadly force threat,” Conley said. “I would have done the same thing.”
Mike Quinn, a retired Minneapolis police sergeant who now is a law enforcement consultant and trainer, gives Hill the benefit of the doubt.
“The dog did latch onto his leg at one point,” Quinn told The Gazette after reviewing the video. “Should he have shot at that point? Without being the guy who’s there getting the dog attacking you, it looks a little bit different.”
But Klinger disagrees, saying Hill broke one of the four cardinal rules of firearm safety by not making sure there was nothing behind his intended target — the dog. Police officers also are not allowed to shoot unless their lives are in danger and a dog bite to the leg isn’t mortal danger, Klinger said.
“If your background is bad, you don’t shoot. You just don’t. There are times and places you as a police officer have to take some pain,” he said. “If a dog knocks you to the ground and starts to maul you, that’s a whole other story.”
Did officer show proper reaction?
All three former law enforcement officers said they understood Hill’s reaction to the shooting, which included rapid breathing, pacing and a distressed call to another officer.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God. (Expletive) Tim. I’m (expletive) going to prison. Oh my God,” Hill said in the video.
Quinn said Hill’s comments were “pretty hard statements, but not statements you’d be surprised at in a situation like that. You go into shock a little bit. Clearly he’s overwhelmed by what happened and he’s clearly struggling.”
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Conley noticed Hill didn’t immediately start performing CPR on Steele, but waits until another officer arrives about 20 seconds later.
“I probably would have tried to see where the shot was, but I’m an EMT (emergency medical technician),” he said.
Should video have been public sooner?
After the DCI investigated the shooting and exonerated Hill, it refused to release the full body camera video, saying that would violate Steele’s privacy. The law enforcement experts interviewed by The Gazette said there likely were other reasons authorities tried to kept the video secret.
“My hunch is they were concerned about the officer’s comments,” Conley said. “They were probably just embarrassed that the officer had a normal reaction to abnormal stress.”
Klinger said the Burlington police probably anticipated a wrongful-death lawsuit and didn’t want to prejudice a potential jury.
“Their legal staff was waiting for a lawsuit, I guarantee you,” he said.
But Klinger also agrees with police the full video could be seen as infringing on Steele’s privacy, despite her family’s request the video be released.
“Here’s this woman basically being stripped as they were rendering first aid,” he said. “For her dignity, it makes sense you wouldn’t show it to everybody.”
Conley said the video should have been made public immediately after the investigation was complete to retain public trust. “The longer you hang on to it, the perception is there that there’s something to hide.”
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 an administrative law judge has not ruled.
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