Des Moines, Iowa — In an effort to protect the ability of reporters and other members of the public to gain access to law enforcement body camera footage and other public records in cases where the public has a high interest in disclosure, the ACLU of Iowa has filed a legal action on behalf of the attorney for the family of an Iowa woman who was shot by a Burlington police officer with her three-year-old son present.
The ACLU filed the case on behalf of attorney Adam Klein in Polk County District Court. It is an appeal of a decision by the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB) last month that determined the records could be kept confidential forever, even though there is no longer an ongoing investigation into the shooting.
The Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) refused multiple requests by the family, attorneys, and the media to release the full dash camera and body camera footage and the 911 calls from the incident, as well as other records. The agencies claimed that they were confidential “peace officers’ investigative reports” under Iowa’s open records law.
Eventually, many of the records were released and the family settled a lawsuit against the Burlington police related to the shooting.
But with this decision by the IPIB determining that bodycam, dashcam, and 911 calls are confidential and may remain so forever, the ACLU has serious concerns about permanently closing-off the public’s access to body camera and similar records from law enforcement, said ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen.
"The presumption that government records are open to the public absent a compelling reason for secrecy is a hallmark of democratic government. We are appealing the recent decision by the Iowa Public Information Board that improperly tells law enforcement across the state that it is okay to keep body camera footage and other records secret regardless of circumstance… and to keep it secret forever, regardless of whether there is an ongoing investigation or not. With that decision, body cameras can become an unregulated tool for police surveillance of the public, with little to no public oversight of police by the public in return."
Key to the problem is an interpretation of Iowa open records law that says police records can be withheld even after the law enforcement investigation is no longer ongoing.
Bettis Austen said clarity in the law has become increasingly important as more and more Iowa law enforcement officers are using body cameras—expensive equipment that was invested in by taxpayers in order to make police more accountable, especially after incidents involving police use of force, such as the Steele death.
"Body cameras were sold to the public in Iowa and elsewhere primarily as a means for greater public oversight of police, especially at a time when fear of law enforcement regarding racial profiling and excessive use of force was at an all-time high," Bettis Austen said.
The ACLU and other government transparency and privacy advocates have for years urged legislators to pass a law that clarifies public records, including body camera video. "Year after year, the legislature has failed to tackle the need for separate body camera legislation," Bettis Austen said.
The appeal is crucial to hold public officials accountable for their actions, she said. “This case presents the important legal issue of whether police investigative reports may remain confidential in perpetuity, long after the investigation is no longer ongoing, and without any consideration of the public interest in disclosure of the reports.”
Adam Klein said the appeal is an effort to hold law enforcement accountable to the citizens they have vowed to protect and serve.
"The City of Burlington has worked every day for more than four years to cover up the truth about Autumn's death. They may be too afraid to tell the truth to the citizens they claim to serve, but we are not afraid," Klein said. "They may hide from the consequences of their actions, but they cannot hide forever. Autumn, her family, and the people of Burlington deserve better than the lies they've been fed. We owe it to them to work every day to bring the truth to light. They deserve the truth."
For more details about the appeal, click here.
To view the appeal, click here.