Staff Columnist

Government secrecy has a public cost

A memorial stands in September 2015 outside the former home of Autumn Steele, a woman shot and killed by an Iowa police officer in Burlington in January 2015. (Daniel Acker/photo for the Washington Post)
A memorial stands in September 2015 outside the former home of Autumn Steele, a woman shot and killed by an Iowa police officer in Burlington in January 2015. (Daniel Acker/photo for the Washington Post)

More than three years has passed since a young Burlington mother lost her life in a police-involved shooting, and the public finally has been allowed to know most of what was captured on body camera video.

Transcripts, of the video and more, were released this past week by a federal judge, following the conclusion of a federal wrongful death lawsuit in which the city of Burlington agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to Autumn Steele’s estate, and against continued objections by the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

What the public learned was largely what had been described: Officer Jesse Hill responded to reports of a domestic situation at the Steele home and, while trying to assess and defuse the situation, was threatened by the unleashed family dog. Hill disengaged with the couple to back away from the dog, which Hill believed had bitten his thigh. He pulled his weapon, intending to scare the animal with warning shots, but slipped on snow and icy ground after his first round. His second shot went wild, striking and ultimately killing Steele.

Evidence released by the federal court, however, also shows a police officer in shock, realizing the bullet released from his gun during the fall hit the woman.

“Where are you shot, ma’am? Ma’am, ma’am where are you hit? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”

The shock remains evident a few moments later as Officer Hill tells another policeman he fears he will be prosecuted and sent to prison for the shooting. “Oh, my God,” he says again.

If I had to guess, I believe it was this statement specifically that police investigators fought for so long to keep private. And, if that’s the case, I hope investigators now understand how wrong they were to try to hide the very human response to an unintended shooting.

The public, previously without this knowledge, was left to fill in the gaps with its collective imagination. As is typically the case, these imagined scenarios — some in which the Burlington officer was purposefully aggressive — were far worse than the truth. And, during the three years these myths were allowed to fester and grow in the public’s mind, all law enforcement faced an unnecessary onslaught of distrust.

There was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, that materials produced on the public’s dime were the property of the public. Government reports routinely were released. Images and audio captured on government equipment were consistently considered public domain. Instances of withheld information were the exception instead of the rule, and doing so required explanation and justification.

Somewhere along the way, this straightforward system has become skewed in favor of secrecy. Too often government bodies rely on reading the tea leaves of public reaction instead of allowing facts to speak for themselves.

Taxpayers not only provide the salaries for members of law enforcement, they pay for body cameras and all related costs. The public provided the firearm that fired the fatal shot, and purchased patrol cars that brought officers to the scene. They paid for officers in dispatch and communications equipment, as well as the utility and fuel bills that keep departments functioning.

How did we arrive at a debate on whether the public has a vested interest or a right to scrutinize what it has already paid for? When did public service decide it could operate like a private enterprise?

As Officer Hill and the Steele family know all too well, nothing can change the outcome of that horrible day in 2015. Nothing can bring Autumn back and, for those who loved her, there is no substitute for what has been lost.

Those of us observing, however, have a vested interest in the hows and whys, especially when we’ve paid for its documenting.

It’s been more than three years of unnecessary speculation, legal filings and court battles — all of which carried an unnecessary public cost.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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