Thursday, September 17, 2015

Autumn Steele Homicide by Cop,Iowa public Information board

Public Information Board takes up Autumn Steele matter again
By ANDY HOFFMAN  Sep 16, 2015 Comments

The Iowa Public Information Board is expected to decide Thursday whether to move forward or dismiss complaints state and local law enforcement agencies violated Iowa’s open records law by refusing access to reports about the fatal Jan. 6 shooting of Autumn Steele outside her Burlington home.

Last month, the nine-member panel delayed its decision, asking parties on both sides of the dispute to file legal briefs on the issues facing the board.

The IPIB hearing is the result of two complaints, one filed by The Hawk Eye and another by Adam Klein, an Atlanta attorney representing Steele’s family, after Freedom of Information requests were denied by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Burlington Police Department and the Des Moines County Attorney’s office.

The FOI requests sought police reports, including police body-camera and dashboard videos, and other items involved in the DCI investigation of Steele’s death.

Charlie Smithson, executive director of the IPIB, initially recommended to the board in July to deny the complaints.

“Given the current language of Iowa Code, especially as interpreted by the courts, the information in question appears to be confidential,” Smithson wrote in his findings to the board. “The complaints are legally insufficient” to warrant further investigation by the board.

However, board members determined they needed more information before making a decision, including a review of videos of the shooting. After watching the videos in closed session last month, the board asked the parties for the legal briefs.

Those documents were filed last week and will be part of Thursday’s discussion.

“The decision for the IPIB Board on (Thursday) is whether to accept the complaints (which trigger attempts for informal resolution/additional investigation) or to dismiss the complaint,” said Charlie Smithson, IPIB executive director.

Steve Delaney, editor and publisher of The Hawk Eye, issued a statement Tuesday about the newspaper’s ongoing attempt to get law enforcement reports and police videos of the shooting.

“It’s unfortunate government has taken this misguided position on this particular matter, especially when you can pick up newspapers all across Iowa and see screenshots of police body-cam videos published on their pages,” he said. “And you also can go to media websites to view police body-cam videos. Government hasn’t articulated effectively why this case is so special that it needs to hide its contents from the public. That’s because it can’t.

“The public’s interest in this far outweighs government’s zealousness to keep official documentation of this tragedy cloaked in governmental secrecy. And when they take such drastic steps to keep information hidden from the public, it’s more reason to seek that information.”

Steele, 34, died after she was shot by Jesse Hill, a Burlington police officer, who was responding to a domestic disturbance about 10 a.m. Jan. 6 between Steele and her husband, Gabriel Steele, 35, at the couple’s 104 S. Garfield Ave. home.

As Hill left his squad car to break up the fight, he was attacked by the family dog. As he was trying to shoot the mixed-breed German shepherd, Hill apparently slipped on some snow or ice and shot Steele in the chest and arm. Her 4-year-old son was feet away.

After an investigation by the DCI, Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers issued a nine-page report clearing Hill of wrongdoing. He returned to work as a Burlington patrol officer a short time later.

The Hawk Eye then filed a Freedom of Information request seeking the reports Beavers used to arrive at her decision, including police body cam and dashboard videos related to the shooting.

In its brief filed last week with the IPIB, lawyers for the state argue the videos are exempt from Iowa’s public records law because it’s part of an investigative file — even though the investigation is closed.

The attorneys claim “peace officers’ investigative reports, and specific portions of electronic mail and telephone billing records of law enforcement agencies if that information is part of an ongoing investigation, except where disclosure is authorized elsewhere under (Iowa) Code, may be kept confidential.”

The state’s attorneys also claim DCI’s release of 12 seconds of Hill’s body cam recorded leading up to the shooting and Beavers’ report about the shooting were all they needed to provide to comply with Iowa law.

However, Michael Giudicessi, a Des Moines attorney representing the newspaper, said in his 33-page brief the state did not comply with the law. He said the state only releases information when it benefits the state.

“Every law enforcement agency involved in this open records dispute has circled the squad cars in a collective effort to make sure that objective video depiction and other records evidencing what transpired on the morning Autumn Steele was shot can be seen only by those within government and to the exclusion of the very citizenry the police agencies involved are charged with serving and protecting,” he wrote.

He said the “release of the records requested ... is required and justified by Iowa law.”

“Recordings by the Iowa State Patrol and local police departments are routinely made and released, apparently without reservation when dissemination serves to promote the public image of law enforcement, to publicize the meritorious service of police officers, or to rebut charges of discrimination or official misconduct,” he said.

Klein urged the board to order the release of the files.

“This board’s hands are not tied,” he wrote. “The Iowa Legislature has granted this board the authority and the obligation to give voice to Autumn’s family, to the citizens of Burlington and to the people of Iowa by hearing this complaint.”

The meeting will start at 1 p.m. in the Wallace Office Building in Des Moines.

Andy Hoffman

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