Staff Editorial

Openness should prevail in Iowa shooting case

Police body cameras charge at the police station in Coralville in 2015. (Gazette Archives)
Police body cameras charge at the police station in Coralville in 2015. (Gazette Archives)

The ACLU of Iowa has filed a lawsuit disputing a decision by the Iowa Public Information Board allowing law enforcement agencies to withhold release of body camera video and other records tied to a 2015 officer-involved shooting. We support the ACLU’s legal push for transparency.

At issue is the death of Autumn Steele, who was fatally shot by a Burlington police officer in January 2015 in her yard.

Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper have been fighting for the release of information in the case since the Burlington Police Department and state Division of Criminal Investigation refused to release full records even after the investigation into the incident was completed.

Last October, a state administrative law judge ruled that the agencies broke the law by withholding records, arguing that body camera and dashboard videos, as well as 911 recordings, can’t be subject to blanket confidentiality.

But in February, the Public Information Board voted 6-2 to void the administrative law judge’s decision, ruling that the records can be kept secret. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in Polk County District Court seeking to overturn that decision, arguing videos and recordings should be legally regarded as “immediate facts and circumstances” of a crime that can’t be kept confidential.

At stake are issues far larger than a single tragic case, including Iowans’ right to know how law enforcement officers acting on our behalf conduct themselves at critical moments. We believe the benefits of allowing Iowans to know as much as possible about what really happened in cases such as the Burlington shooting far outweigh the government’s interest in hiding those records.

It’s unfortunate that these issues can’t be resolved without litigation. The Public Information Board was created to help Iowans seeking greater government transparency, but, in this case, the board has sided with secrecy. The Legislature, which could clarify the legal need for access to body camera video and other such records, has shown little inclination to do so.

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So, as in many instances where government refuses to provide critical information to the governed, citizens must turn to the courts. We hope the ACLU, and Iowans seeking more openness from the government they pay for, prevail.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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