Iowa needs sunshine — on police videos

Sunshine Week will be observed across the nation next 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.

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.

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-and-death incidents.

That’s how government transparency ought to work.

* * *
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and retired opinion editor at the Des Moines Register. He is a native of Bloomfield, Iowa, and now lives in Des Moines. He can be reached at

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