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Judge Hears Open Records Arguments in Burlington Police Shooting

Shooting victim Autumn Steele; Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill
Burlington Hawkeye
Shooting victim Autumn Steele; Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill

An administrative law judge in Des Moines today heard arguments in an ongoing public records conflict pitting the Iowa Public Information Board against the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation and the Burlington Police Department.  

The Board is pursuing a contested case against the law enforcement agencies, seeking police video and other evidence in the fatal police shooting of Autumn Steele at her home in Burlington in January of 2015.    

The mother of two was shot and killed by Officer Jesse Hill who answered a domestic dispute call at the home.

A  12-second clip from the video has been made public.

In a teleconference hearing with Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland, DCI attorney Jeffrey Peterzalek argued his agency has complied with the open records law.

‘The video that was provided in this case shows the entire incident from the time the officer left his vehicle until the time Mrs. Steele was shot,” Peterzalek said.   “They have a video of the incident, they have seven pages of description of the incident.”

“We have complied with Chapter 22,” added Burlington P.D. attorney Holly Corkery, referring to Iowa’s open government law.

The attorneys for law enforcement pointed out drawbacks to opening police files.

“It could have a chilling effect on witness statements,” Corkery said.

“They have not shown there would be any harm to the public interest if they tell the truth,” countered Mark McCormick, special prosecutor for the information board.   “The burden of proof is on the party claiming confidentiality,” McCormick added.  

McCormick argued if Iowa law is interpreted to allow confidentiality of the police records, the state could end up as other jurisdictions have across the country where police records were found to be wrongly withheld.

Autumn Steele's husband Gabriel Steele addressing the Iowa Public Information Board
Credit Joyce Russell/IPR
Autumn Steele's husband Gabriel Steele addressing the Iowa Public Information Board

“Those arguments are appropriately made to the legislature,” Corkery said.

Some public information advocates have said the Iowa legislature should pass a law clarifying that police videos should be considered public records.

The public records case originated with a complaint from the Burlington Hawkeye newspaper and the family of Autumn Steele.

The judge is being asked to rule on a summary judgment motion by the law enforcement agencies, effectively ending the complaint.

This  post was  edited at 5:26 a.m. 11/9/2017    

Copyright 2017 Iowa Public Radio

Joyce Russell is a correspondent based at the Iowa Statehouse. Joyce has been covering the Iowa Statehouse since shortly after joining the news staff at WOI Radio in 1988. Her earlier broadcasting experience included news reporting at commercial stations in Oklahoma City and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Joyce’s reports can be heard on National Public Radio and American Public Media programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. She covered the last six Iowa caucus campaigns and interviewed numerous candidates for president, including some who went on to attain the highest office in the land.