Public Safety

In reversal, board says police can keep Burlington shooting records secret

State board's decision likely means less public access to police body camera video

Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Rick Rahn is interviewed July 20, 2018, by attorney Patrick O’Connell during a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland in Des Moines. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)
Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Rick Rahn is interviewed July 20, 2018, by attorney Patrick O’Connell during a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland in Des Moines. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)
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Ending a four-year legal battle, the Iowa Public Information Board on Thursday overturned a judge’s decision in its favor and ruled two law enforcement agencies did not break the law by keeping secret the body camera video and other records of a 2015 officer-involved fatal shooting in Burlington.

The board voted 6-2 to dismiss two complaints against the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Burlington Police Department. The abrupt ending capped a quest by the dead woman’s family and a Burlington newspaper — involving dozens of meetings, a contested case hearing and an October decision by an administrative law judge — to let the public find out what happened that deadly winter day.

Board members said they share the public’s concern about government secrecy over officer-involved shootings. But the agencies did not violate Iowa Code Chapter 22 when they declined to release records about the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting of Autumn Steele.

“This decision not only reflects the legal position of the board, it fairly reflects what the majority of the board thinks,” said member E.J. Giovannetti, who voted for the measure.

Mary Ungs-Sogaard, board president and publisher of several Northeast Iowa newspapers, and Rick Morain, retired publisher of the Jefferson Herald, opposed it.

The vote was taken after an hourlong closed session in which the board discussed the proposed ruling, drafted by Megan Tooker, executive director and legal counsel for the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. The board asked Tooker to assist with the Burlington case because other public information board staff had been involved in earlier decisions related to the case.

The controversy goes back to Jan. 6, 2015, when 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 return to duty.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk-Eye filed complaints with the public information board after the DCI and Burlington police refused to release body camera video, a 911 recording, dash camera video and other records. The law enforcement agencies said they complied with the law by releasing basic facts.

The board decided in October 2016 there was probable cause the agencies violated public records law. A contested case hearing was held July 20, 2018.

Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland ruled Oct. 5 the law enforcement agencies did break the law by keeping the records secret, saying police body camera video, 911 call recordings and squad car dashboard camera images don’t get blanket confidentiality as “peace officers’ investigative reports.”

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office and the Burlington police appealed late last year.

Separately, records and video from the case were released last September by a federal court judge after the Steele family had filed a wrongful-death suit against the city. But that still left the state case — and its implications for the future of public scrutiny of police investigations — in limbo.

In the board’s reversal Thursday, members said peace officer’s investigative records may be kept secret even after a case is closed. Further, they said the public information board doesn’t have jurisdiction to apply a balancing test to see if the public value of disclosure outweighs benefits of confidentiality.

The decision likely means the public will not get access to police body camera video or other investigative records in the future unless authorities want to release them.

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The board proposed legislation this year to require the release of body camera video in officer-involved shootings. This bill and similar proposals in past years have not gained enough support from lawmakers to pass.

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

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