Public Safety

Judge: Law agencies wrongly kept fatal shooting records secret

Ruling in Autumn Steele case may reshape what police must disclose

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Police body camera video, 911 call recordings and squad car dashboard camera images don’t get blanket confidentiality as “peace officers’ investigative reports,” according to a judge who ruled last week that the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Burlington Police Department must make public these records about the 2015 fatal police shooting of Autumn Steele.

“Placing these public records with other records that are confidential impermissibly places a secretive cloak over the entire investigation,” Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland ruled Oct. 5.

Warning: This video contains graphic violence and language

The ruling came in a drawn-out public records dispute pitting Steele’s family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper against the law enforcement agencies that had declined to release many records on the Jan. 6, 2015, shooting, despite the case being closed and Officer Jesse Hill — who fired the fatal shots — being allowed to return to work on the force.

The 24-page decision, which followed a July 20 contested case hearing, is significant because Iowa law enforcement agencies vary widely in their practices for releasing public records, especially in high-profile cases.

If the law enforcement agencies appeal within 30 days of the ruling, the Iowa Public Information Board would vote to affirm, reverse or modify Doland’s decision.

On Jan. 6, 2015, Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call at Steele’s house, where Autumn Steele and her husband, Gabriel Steele, were arguing in the yard as Gabriel Steele held one of their young sons.

As Hill tried to stop Autumn Steele from striking her husband, who was trying to leave with the boy, the family dog, a German shepherd named Sammy, bit Hill’s leg, Hill told investigators after the shooting.

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Hill fired his weapon twice, but slipped in the snow and instead hit Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two boys, killing her. No criminal charges were filed against Hill.

Many of these details became clearer in September, when a federal judge ordered release of the body camera video and other records after conclusion of a wrongful-death lawsuit, in which Steele’s family won $2 million from the city.

Doland said there should be no penalty for the DCI or Burlington police because they “reasonably relied” on court decisions in their decision to withhold the records. But she decided their interpretations of the court precedent were wrong.

The DCI and Burlington police did not determine whether each record in the case was public before putting them into a file of “peace officers’ investigative reports,” the ruling states.

“This is a very broad interpretation of an exception that the Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized as ‘qualified, not absolute,’” Doland wrote. “Even if Burlington and the DCI were correct that the requested information was confidential during the ongoing criminal investigation, they were required to apply the balancing test once the criminal investigation ended.”

The DCI had wrapped up the probe of the officer-involved shooting by February 2015.

Adam Klein, a Georgia attorney who has represented Steele’s family, released a statement Thursday morning:

“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 a permanent veil of secrecy,” Klein wrote. “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.

“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.”

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