More than three years after an Iowa woman was killed by a police officer, her family still is fighting for the release of government records relating to her death.
Autumn Steele was shot in January 2015 by a Burlington police officer responding to a domestic dispute call. In a federal wrongful death suit filed in 2016, her family claimed the officer fired his weapon in an “unreasonable, unnecessary and reckless manner.”
Steele’s family said this month they are finalizing a settlement with the city of Burlington totaling $2 million, pending approval from a federal judge. That may bring some closure for Steele’s loved ones, but the settlement does not mark the end to this tragic series of events.
Steele’s family, along with advocates for Iowa’s open government laws, have sought the public release of additional records. Those issues remain largely unresolved, demonstrating several highly concerning gaps in Iowa’s public information rules and procedures.
This is precisely the type of case that demands greater public scrutiny. Police have claimed the officer inadvertently fired his weapon because a dog attacked him. However, a short video clip from the officer’s government-issued body camera does not appear to corroborate that version of the story.
To date, the public has only seen 12 seconds of the video collected by the officer’s camera that day in 2015. Advocates have asked the city to release additional video footage as part of the full investigation file.
Iowa law enforcement officials frequently withhold documents from the public, relying on an exemption in the Iowa public information law protecting records in an “ongoing investigation.” However, that should not pertain to Steele’s shooting, which now is a closed case.
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The Iowa Public Information Board has charged the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigations with violating public records law, and a hearing is scheduled for next month. We hope those proceedings will lead to additional records being released.
However, even that will not resolve the broader inconsistencies in the way our state’s transparency rules are interpreted and enforced. The prevalence of police bodycams in particular demands updated laws to ensure the public has proper oversight when police are accused of misconduct.
So far, Iowa lawmakers have been reluctant to pursue broad changes to the open records law. No family should be forced to fight the way Steele’s has to get straight answers about a loved one’s death at the hands of the government. That should be reason enough for the Legislature to act.
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