The head of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council believes a recent decision by the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) could have a lasting effect on transparency across the state.
The board voted to dismiss the complaints filed by the Burlington Hawkeye and the family of Autumn Steele against the Burlington Police Department (BPD) and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). The law enforcement agencies were accused of violating Iowa’s open records law by withholding documents related to Steele’s death.
A Burlington police officer shot and killed Steele outside of her home in Burlington in January 2015. Criminal charges were not filed against the officer.
The newspaper and Steele’s family filed their complaints with the IPIB after their requests for the release of documents, including body camera footage, dashboard camera footage, and the 911 call, were rejected by the BPD and the DCI. The agencies claimed the documents were confidential because they were investigative documents and the IPIB agreed.
“The board does not have the authority to substitute its decision making for that of the lawful custodians merely because it would have provided a different response to a public records request if it stood in the lawful custodians’ shoes,” wrote the board in its order dismissing the petitions.
Randy Evans with the Freedom of Information Council believes time played a factor in the IPIB’s final decision. He said he was not surprised by the ruling because the complaints were filed nearly four years ago.
“I had seen the makeup of the board change during that time,” said Evans. “Members left, new members were appointed. But it is important to remember that the board had voted at one time by a wide margin that there was probable cause that the law enforcement agencies had violated the state’s open records law.”
An administrative law judge had also ruled that the BPD and the DCI violated Iowa’s open records law. But the IPIB chose not to accept the ruling from the judge and instead agreed to dismiss the case.
Evans said he was also disappointed by the IPIB’s decision, but not just because of the decision itself. He said the board had a chance to take a stand toward greater transparency for local governments and law enforcement.
“I was disappointed that the board did not use the opportunity to convey to government entities across the state that police credibility is at stake when government throws the blanket of secrecy over the incidents that involve the actions of law enforcement,” said Evans. “You are not going to build the credibility of the BPD by stamping every video as confidential.”
“I understand the importance of keeping confidential [certain] law enforcement actions: confidential sources, investigative techniques, the results of certain interviews. I understand all that. But the 911 recordings and the police video recordings don’t involve any interpretation by law enforcement officers. From my vantage point, they are clearly are part of the immediate facts and circumstances of an incident that should be made public.”
Many of the documents being sought in the IPIB complaints were already made public as part of a federal civil case. Evans does not believe the release of the documents by the federal judge played a factor in the IPIB’s decision. But he is worried this will set a precedent for other law enforcement agencies to follow.
“A green light, a road map for law enforcement agencies across Iowa to provide even less access to video than they have in the past,” said Evans. “I worry with the Autumn Steele precedent now, I worry videos will be deemed confidential investigative documents and be forever sealed.”
Evans said Iowa lawmakers must take a stand on this issue and determine what the public should have the right to view when it comes to body camera footage.
“When law [enforcement] officers use deadly force, or when law [enforcement] officers come under potential deadly force from the people they encounter, I think the public has a legitimate right to see those videos, to judge for themselves whether law enforcement is acting appropriately, whether law officers are using good judgement, whether changes are needed in the way officers are trained. I think that is what a public records law can and should deal with.”
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