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Judge Rules Against Burlington P.D. in Fatal Police Shooting

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

The Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have lost the latest round in their struggle to keep private certain records from a fatal police shooting in Burlington. 

In January of 2015 Officer Jesse Hill accidentally shot and killed 34-year-old Autumn Steele at her home after answering a domestic abuse complaint. 

The Iowa Public Information board has hired Des Moines attorney Mark McCormick as a special prosecutor in the case, seeking the release of police body camera videos, emergency calls, and other evidence.

Credit Joyce Russell/IPR

The law enforcement agencies argue they are part of a confidential police investigative file.   The IPIB maintains they are covered by Iowa’s open records law.

In a ruling this week, Administrative law Judge Karen Doland declined the law enforcement agencies’ requests for summary judgment, which would have in effect dismissed the case.

Doland wrote there is strong legal support for confidentiality of police investigations.   “The legislature clearly intended to allow peace officers and DCI investigators to perform much of their investigatory work in secret and have their sensitive files concerning their investigation protected from public disclosure.”   

However, she cited court precedent that the privilege is not absolute and must be balanced against the requirements of Iowa’s open records law.    

Her ruling also raised questions about whether the video and audio recordings are in fact part of an investigative report.

“While the phrase "peace officers' investigative report" has been used frequently throughout these proceedings there is still an issue as to what that phrase means,” Doland wrote.

Judge Doland will set a hearing date for the special prosecutor to present evidence in the case.   The IPIB will have the final say in the case.  

Some open government advocates say the legislature should address whether police body camera video should be considered a public record.