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Public Safety

Public should learn more about police shooting, Iowa Public Information Board votes

Burlington officer accidentally shot woman while dog attacking

The Iowa Public Information Board will work with law enforcement agencies to release more information about the accidental fatal shooting of a Burlington woman by a police officer in January.

The board voted 5-3 Thursday to accept complaints filed by Autumn Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper seeking access to a body camera video and other information about the Jan. 6 shooting.

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

Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call at Autumn Steele’s house, where he was attacked by a dog, board records state. Trying to defend himself, Hill fired his weapon and accidentally hit Steele, killing her. No criminal charges were filed against Hill and he returned to work.

The Burlington Police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation so far have released only 12 seconds of Hill’s body camera recording. After Thursday’s vote, the board will now work with the agencies to try to reach an informal resolution on sharing more information with the public.

“The case is moving forward,” said Adam Klein, an attorney representing Steele’s family. “It doesn’t mean we’re getting the records tomorrow.”

Attorneys for the state have argued Hill’s body camera video is exempt from Iowa’s public records law because it’s part of an investigative file — even though the investigation is closed.

Iowa Code Section 22.7(5) says: “Peace officers’ investigative reports, and specific portions of electronic mail and telephone billing records of law enforcement agencies if that information is part of an ongoing investigation, except where disclosure is authorized elsewhere in this Code” may be kept confidential.

Some courts have ruled the comma after “investigation” indicates only electronic mail and telephone billing records could be made public after the closure of an investigation.

Klein said the board has the power to perform a balancing test to see whether the public benefit of releasing the video would outweigh privacy concerns.

The Hawk Eye argued in briefs filed last week the whole video should be made public because of increased concern nationwide about officer-involved shootings.

The newspaper points out several cases in which the Iowa Department of Public Safety released videos that cast officers in a positive light. And University of Iowa police gave the media unedited body camera videos relating to the Dec. 5 removal of public art that depicted a Ku Klux Klan robe and a subsequent student confrontation, its brief states.

If the board can’t reach resolution with the parties involved, it could prosecute public officials for violations of Iowa’s Open Records law.

The board, which started accepting complaints in 2013, has charged only one person. Former Washington County Attorney Larry Brock was charged in June 2014 with violating Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code for failing to provide public records for three months. The board rejected a negotiated settlement and the case went to a contested hearing.

An administrative law judge recommended a $1,000 fine, which Brock paid.

An open records violation carries a civil penalty of up to $500, but the penalty for knowingly violating the law ranges from $1,000 to $2.500.

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