The Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation kept confidential numerous documents related to a fatal officer-involved shooting that occurred in January 2015. An administrative law judge said that action violated Iowa's Open Records Law.
Autumn Steele was shot and killed by Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill in January 2015. Hill was responding to a domestic disturbance call at Steele’s home.
In the months that followed, the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation rejected requests for documents related to the investigation into Steele’s death.
The agencies said the documents, including 911 calls related to the shooting and footage from dashboard cameras and body cameras, were confidential because they were part of a peace officer investigative report.
The Burlington Hawkeye newspaper and an attorney for Steele’s family appealed their rejections to the Iowa Public Information Board. In October 2016, roughly 18 months after the records requests were made, the board found probable cause that the BPD and the DCI violated Iowa Code Chapter 22.
The board also found that Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers violated the open records law by withholding public records. She reached a settlement with the board in December 2016 that required her to pay a small fine without admitting guilt.
After nearly two years of legal maneuvering between the Burlington Police Department, the DCI, and the Iowa Public Information Board, a hearing was held in July 2018 before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland.
The law enforcement agencies argued that the records are confidential because they were part of the investigative report. The IPIB argued that the agencies withheld public documents.
Doland issued her ruling on October 5. She wrote that the default is that a record should be considered “public” unless proven otherwise.
“If the custodian of the documents does not ‘establish’ that a record is confidential, the record is a public record. The open records law makes clear the ‘default’ position for a record in the government’s possession is that it is a public record,” wrote Doland.
Throughout the process, the Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said all documents related to the investigation were included in the confidential investigative report.
To that, Doland wrote:
“Burlington and DCI therefore never made a decision as to whether the 911 tape, the bodycam videos, and the dashcam records were ‘public records.’ Instead, they determined that once the 911 tape, the bodycam videos, and the dashcam videos went into the file labeled the ‘peace officer’s investigative report,’ they became confidential. Under this interpretation, virtually every document in every investigation would be confidential. This is a very broad interpretation of an exemption that the Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized as ‘qualified, not absolute.’”
Doland also cited case law in her ruling that states that certain investigative documents can be kept confidential by law enforcement as a method for solving crimes. Examples include information from a confidential informant or a discussion regarding theories about a case under investigation.
She wrote that does not apply to records produced by law enforcement itself, such as body camera footage or 911 calls.
“Placing these public records with other records that are confidential impermissibly places a secretive cloak over the entire investigation. In fact, in this case, it placed a secretive cloak over two investigations. The investigation by the Burlington police officers in response to the original 911 call at the Steele residence and the investigation by the DCI of the shooting of Autumn Steele by officer Hill.”
Doland added that even if the law enforcement agencies were correct in arguing that the 911 tapes, bodycam videos, and dashcam videos were confidential because they were in the investigative report, the claim to keep the investigative report private is strongest during an active investigation.
“The criminal investigation was over in Feburary 2015 when the Des Moines County Attorney notified the DCI that she would not file criminal charges against officer Hill and that she would return the investigative file to the DCI. Burlington and DCI failed to take this into account in determining whether items in the investigative file remained confidential after the criminal investigation was completed. Even if Burlington and DCI were correct that the requested information as confidential during the ongoing criminal investigation, they were required to apply the balancing test once the criminal investigation ended.”
Doland ordered the documents be released to the parties involved, which is now a moot point because the documents were released as part of a federal civil lawsuit. She also ruled that the agencies should not face any financial penalties for their violations.
Doland’s ruling is considered a “proposed decision.” That’s because it can be appealed to the Iowa Public Information Board within 30 days.
IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson told Tri States Public Radio Thursday afternoon that if no appeal is filed, the ruling would stand as is. She said an appeal would require the IPIB to accept the ruling, reject the ruling, or modify it.
An attorney for the city of Burlington did not respond to a request for comment.
Adam Klein, an attorney who filed one of the initial requests for public records, issued the following statement (as received) on behalf of the Steele family in response to the ruling.
For more than three years, the DCI and the City of Burlington have sought to allow the police to operate from the shadows, to abuse their authority to tell only the story they want to tell, and to conceal the inconvenient truth behind an permanent veil of secrecy.
Judge Doland's order sends a message to all who seek to hide from the truth: you cannot hide forever. Your authority is not absolute. Your fear of the truth will not rule the day at the expense of the very people you claim to serve.
Autumn's family has waited for far, far too long, as the City and the DCI have used every legal procedure at their disposal to needlessly delay this case and prolong this family's suffering. We are grateful that this process is, at long last, nearing its end. We await the day when the full story of Autumn's death can be told. Autumn deserves that. Her family deserves that. The people of Burlington deserve that.