The 2016 session of the Iowa Legislature is underway, and law enforcement agencies have made it clear they will be seeking legislative approval that would keep from public view most video recorded by body cameras worn by law officers.
The position of law enforcement flies in the face of public opinion when law officers use force in the performance of their duties. Notable cases have included the deaths of Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer, and Autumn Steele, a Burlington woman who was killed by a police officer there while the officer tried to shoot the woman’s dog.
The position now of many law enforcement agencies also contradicts assurances these agencies gave when they first sought money from city councils and boards of supervisors to purchase body cameras. Back then, officials of law enforcement agencies assured these boards and councils that body cameras would provide an important means for the public and for law enforcement commanders to monitor the conduct of law officers.
The board of trustees of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council unanimously adopted by the following resolution on Jan. 15:
The Iowa open records law’s statement of openness makes it clear that public records include “all records, documents, tape, or other information, stored or preserved in any medium” except in exemptions that are enumerated in the law. There is no exemption that makes police-worn body camera video a confidential record. Police videos are public records, just like all other police reports that give the “date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident.”
These videos should not be considered confidential records as part of a police investigative file any more than photographs shot by a citizen would automatically be part of the investigative file, or the National Weather Service’s report of meteorological conditions at the time of an incident would be.
Further, the present language of the Iowa Open Records Act provides two more than adequate means for law enforcement and private persons to obtain confidentiality over a particular recording should the need for a exception to openness be paramount in a specific case.
First, to the extent law enforcement video is part of the fact and circumstance information the statute generally commands shall be public in section 22.7(4), a specific recording nevertheless could be exempted from disclosure under that provision as written if the lawful custodian reasonably determines the situation presents “unusual circumstances where disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual.”
Second, the open records law always gives government agencies and private parties the ability to obtain relief from the courts by requesting a judicially-approved order enjoining release of a specific video recording. The procedure of Iowa Code section 22.8 fully protects the interested parties and the public and the press alike because it places the confidentiality determination in the hands of a neutral judge to decide, as the Legislature already has provided, whether public examination will not be in the public interest and would substantially and irreparably injure any person or persons.
Thus, the Iowa Open Records Act as it stands on the books already fairly and fully addresses the issues surrounding public access to police video. The addition of another exemption to the long list of confidentiality exceptions to the public records act neither is necessary nor wise.