Information Board Punts on Police Shooting Case

Jul 17, 2015

The Iowa Public Information Board which is charged with enforcing Iowa’s open records law yesterday voted to continue looking into a fatal police shooting in Burlington earlier this year.    The Board must decide whether the public has the right to see a police report on the shooting and other materials  including 911 calls and a dash cam video.  

In January, Officer Jesse Hill responded to a fight between 34-year-old Autumn Steele and her husband.   Steele’s dog bit the officer, and Hill fired his gun twice, killing Ms. Steele.  

The Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation investigated, but has not released its report.   That doesn’t sit well with Burlington Hawkeye Editor Steve Delaney.

“We would like to tell the public what these guys found out,” Delaney says.  “We think that is important public information."

But the DCI disagrees, and on Thursday, the Public Information Board wasn’t ready to rule either way.   The DCI has released just 12 seconds of body camera video showing the officer getting out of his car and firing his gun.   Board member Jo Martin, a newspaperwoman from Spirit Lake, says that’s not enough.

“What led up to that is something that the public should see,” Martin says, “just to get the context of how that shooting occurred.”   

The family’s attorney Adam Klein argues public safety is at stake. 

“The public interest in this case in disclosure is overwhelming,” Klein says.   “Today Officer Hill is on active duty.  He’s armed.  He’s patrolling the streets of Burlington.”

The legal arguments center on whether documents related to a police investigation should remain secret even after a case is closed.   And there’s disagreement over what are considered relevant facts.     

Assistant Attorney General Jeff Peterzalek, who’s representing the DCI, says the information the family wants is protected by both state and federal law.

“The department has complied with the law in spades,” Peterzalek says.   “We would ask that that be affirmed by this board.”

Earlier this week, the board’s executive director Charlie Smithson recommended dismissing the case, based on his reading of past court decisions.   But the independent board did not go along.

“I am not comfortable closing the case today based on what I’m hearing,” says board member Gary Mohr, a city councilman from Bettendorf.   “If there's going to be caution there needs to be caution on the side of openness.”

So the board asked the executive director and his staff to gather more information.  That includes finding out just which documents actually exist.     Executive Director Smithson says it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to see the whole package, including video and 911 calls.

“That’s what I need to see,” Smithson says, “what we can do legally at this point in the process.”

The DCI attorney said he would share the contested records with the director.    Smithson will return with a new recommendation when the board meets again in August.