Sunshine Week will be observed across the nation this week.
The week shines a spotlight on the important role open government and citizen accountability play in our democracy. Open meetings and open records are the tools that enable the public to know what their government is doing, or not doing, in the name of the people.
In Iowa, the sunshine next week will be obscured by clouds — at least when it comes to citizen access to videos recorded by law officers on their squad car cameras and body cameras during incidents in which police shoot someone or when officers are fired upon.
It should trouble Iowans that they have no right of access to these recordings, because our state increasingly is out of step with many other states when it comes to making these available so people can evaluate for themselves the actions of their police.
As a society, we place great responsibility on the shoulders of our officers. We give them guns and expect them to keep us safe, to apprehend lawbreakers and to use sound judgment in doing so.
In all but the rarest of circumstances, officers carry out their duties in a commendable manner. But when officers’ actions are called into question, government officials in Iowa too often invoke secrecy, rather than inviting this important public accountability process.
In my role as executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, I have carried a simple message to officials across Iowa — to Attorney General Tom Miller, to members of the Iowa Legislature, to leaders of state and local law enforcement agencies. That message is this: You erode public confidence and invite skepticism, rather than building trust, when you throw a blanket of secrecy over videos that record these officer-involved incidents.
A case in point: On the morning of Jan. 6, 2015, Burlington police Officer Jesse Hill fatally wounded Autumn Steele, 35, outside her home there.
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In the four years since that snowy morning, lawyers for the City of Burlington and the Iowa Department of Public Safety have insisted the recordings of the 911 calls and police body camera and dash camera videos should not be released to the public because they are forever part of the confidential investigation into the unarmed mother’s death.
Hill was called to the home to break up an argument between Steele and her husband. But she was accidentally shot when Hill slipped on the snowy ground and fell while trying to shoot the couple’s German shepherd as it ran at him.
Hill’s two bullets both struck Steele, one in the chest and the other passing through her arm, grazing the dog.
The Des Moines County attorney decided that Hill broke no laws that morning because his actions, under the circumstances, were reasonable.
His actions clearly were reckless — trying to shoot the dog with the Steeles and their young son just feet away. As evidence of that disregard for their safety, look at the $2 million wrongful-death settlement the city reached with Autumn Steele’s family.
Without question, the public is entitled to scrutinize not just the officer’s actions, but also the county attorney’s decision to clear Hill of any wrongdoing and the police chief’s decision to allow Hill to keep his job.
But the public has been blocked at nearly every turn.
Two weeks ago, the Iowa Public Information Board voted 6-2 to ignore an administrative law judge’s recommendation that the board find Burlington and the Iowa Department of Public Safety violated the public records law by refusing to release the 911 recording and police videos as part of the factual report of the shooting.
The board concluded it could not substitute its judgment for the judgment of the law enforcement officials who decided to keep the records secret. The administrative law judge had recommended the board find that confidentiality of such police records is not absolute and must be balanced against factors favoring public disclosure.
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A few days earlier, a legislative subcommittee declined to advance a bill that would have made clear once and for all that police videos are available for public examination in cases involving police shootings.
Lawmakers clearly heard the police officers and lobbyists and their message that they do not want such second-guessing of officers’ actions.
That’s not how “sunshine” and government accountability should work.
The Legislature needs to take another crack at this important issue and do better at balancing the need for confidentiality for certain investigative documents prepared by law officers and the legitimate need for public scrutiny of audio and video recordings that are a factual account of what transpired in these life-or-death incidents.
That’s how government transparency ought to work.
• Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Comments: IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com.