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State Regulators Delay Decision On Public Records In Autumn Steele Case

Kate Payne
Since a Burlington police officer killed Autumn Steele in 2015, her mother Gina Colbert has been fighting to have police records of the incident released.

State regulators chose not to take action Monday in an ongoing public records case related to the killing of Autumn Steele, after deliberating the decision in a closed session for over an hour. Four years after her death, investigators are arguing they still don’t have to release files from the officer-related shooting in Burlington.

Attorneys for state and local investigators argued Monday they don’t have to release police body camera and dash camera footage, and a 911 dispatch call, because they qualify as confidential investigative records. Lawyers for the state Department of Criminal Investigation and Burlington Police Department made their case to the Iowa Public Information Board, with counter arguments by a lawyer representing the board. 

Attorney Jeffery Peterzalek arguing for the DCI that the records should be considered peace officers' investigative records under state law, and therefore confidential.

"We can argue back and forth about whether the DCI should have or could have exercised its discretion in releasing some additional documents. But that is not the issue."

But former Supreme Court Justice Mark McCormick, arguing for the IPIB, says there is nothing particularly investigative about these particular records.

"Was that body cam video a peace officer's investigative report? I don't think so," McCormick said. "What investigative report was made in those three situations? A call to 911 is not a report, other than a citizen's report."

Burlington police officer Jesse Hill was called to a domestic incident at the Steele home in 2015, where he encountered Autumn and her husband Gabriel fighting in their yard. The Steeles' dog advanced on Hill and he fired his gun at the animal, but hit Autumn in the chest, a shot that killed her.

Records released after parties settled a federal lawsuit in the incident show Hill thought he would be convicted of a crime after he shot Steele.

"Oh, my god," Hill said, according to body camera footage of the incdent. "I'm (expletive) going to prison."

Autumn Steele’s mother Gina Colbert believes police are hiding mistakes that could be fireable offenses, or incriminating ones.

“The reality is that they’re hiding the truth because the truth doesn’t do what they want it to do. The police need to tell a story about a tragic accident. Unavoidable. Nobody’s fault. A story that lets them put Jesse Hill back on the street with a gun and a badge,” Colbert told the board. 

“They are here today asking you to agree that police are immune to the truth. To tell them that, no matter what they do, they can tell whatever story lets them off the hook, and lock away any facts that say otherwise,” she said.

Colbert and her husband made the 900 mile trip from Columbus, Ga. to address the Public Information Board. Colbert was not able to make her comments before the board made its decision, but addressed the members after they announced they would take no action on the case.

An administrative law judge has ruled investigators acted illegally in withholding the records. It’s up to the Public Information Board to agree, or allow more appeals.

Board Chair Mary Ungs-Sogaard says she hopes to resolve the case soon, and says the group's final decision will be made in an open session.

"There was no decisions [sic] made at this point. We will come back after our attorney gives directions, next meeting probably." she said. "Decisions will be made in open session."

A recent state audit by the Iowa Office of Ombudsman found the board charged with interpreting and upholding the state's public records and meetings laws was running afoul of those same laws. Authors of the report suspect the board may have been inappropriately going into closed sessions, and the authors concluded the board was violating state law in not adequately explaining votes to the public, after deliberating the issues behind closed doors. 

"It is obvious to us, based on the letter of the Open Meetings Law and input from the academic who wrote it, that IPIB violated Iowa Code sections21.1 and 21.3when its members failed to specify what they had voted on after emerging from closed sessions on July 20 and August 25, 2017. The decisions the board made on those dates were not easily accessible to the people, as required by law," the report authors wrote.

Four years after her daughter's death, Steele's mother says she's not sure what comes next or when, but says she's not giving up.

"We have not gone away," Colbert said. "And I am not going away."

Correction: a previous version of this story stated a report found the IPIB was unlawfully taking votes behind closed doors. Instead, the report found the IPIB was going into closed sessions and then taking votes in open session that were "vague" and "not easily accessible" to the public, in violation of Iowa Code.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter