The following column was written by Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The column appeared in several Iowa newspapers and news websites.
The actions of journalists and police officers were in the spotlight last week in a Des Moines courtroom.
The scrutiny came at the trial of Andrea Sahouri, a Des Moines Register reporter. She was arrested while covering a chaotic protest last May 31, six days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
The jury sorted through questions and allegations about the actions of Sahouri, who has worked for the Register since 2019, and Officer Luke Wilson, a Des Moines Police Department employee for 18 years.
In the end, jurors unanimously believed Sahouri, not Wilson.
Polk County Attorney John Sarcone made an interesting comment in defending his decision to charge Sahouri: “No one is above the law,” he said.
The jurors who decided Sahouri did not overstep her rights as a journalist announced their decision in open court. But when police officers are accused of violating a statute or departmental policy, the public rarely learns how these complaints end.
This needs to change. Keeping the outcome of citizen complaints and internal police investigations secret only erodes public trust and confidence in law enforcement.
Here’s how this problem developed.
In 2017, the Legislature amended Iowa law to require information from the personnel files of government employees to be made public if certain disciplinary action is taken. With the change, the law says the “documented reasons and rationale” for firing or demoting an employee, or for the employee resigning in lieu of termination, must be made public.
But if the employee is not demoted to a lower job classification, then the public typically remains in the dark — although police chiefs, sheriffs and top officials of other law enforcement agencies have authority, but no obligation, to share the disciplinary action they take against employees.
Some recent cases show the need for more transparency:
o KATIE AKIN: One day after Andrea Sahouri’s arrest, another Register reporter, Katie Akin, covered a Black Lives Matter protest on the grounds of the Iowa Capitol. She was standing well away from the demonstrators, recording video and narrating the events.
As police officers and Iowa State Patrol troopers started moving in a line to clear demonstrators from the Capitol grounds, Akin began retreating to get farther away. You can hear her repeatedly telling officers as they approach her, “I’m press! I’m press! I’m with the Register! “I’m going! I’m going! I’m press!”
Suddenly, you see a Des Moines police officer rush up and pepper-spray her in the face. She shrieks in pain.
The newspaper asked the police department to conduct an internal review of the officer’s actions. Officials agreed. But nine months later, the newspaper has been told nothing about that investigation — or even if it occurred. There has been no announcement of whether the officer was reprimanded or cleared of any misconduct.
o STEPHANIE SWARTZ: Des Moines police officer Stephanie Swartz exited Interstate Highway 235 at 42nd Street on a December night in 2019. There was a red light at the intersection, and a sign warned, “No Right Turn on Red.”
Swartz was on her cellphone and made the turn anyway. Her police car struck Shirley Streiber, 70, who was crossing the intersection on a “Walk” light with her dog. Streiber suffered a concussion.
Swartz did not receive a ticket for her improper turn. Instead, police said she was disciplined — although officials refused to say what that punishment was.
o TRAFFIC STOP: On the evening of July 15, 2018, officers Kyle Thies and Natalie Heinemann pulled over a car near a Des Moines city park after it supposedly rolled through a stop sign after being in the park after hours.
For the next 15 minutes, Thies grilled the driver, Montray Little, and his passenger, Jared Clinton. The men were compliant and polite as Thies repeatedly told them he suspected they had marijuana and a gun — accusations they denied.
Thies ordered Little out or the car and threatened to take him to jail if he didn’t comply. Little was handcuffed, but no gun or marijuana was found in the car. The men finally were released without any tickets.
The men filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging they were victims of racial profiling. The city paid a settlement of $75,000 — but taxpayers do not know whether Thies and Heinemann faced any discipline for their actions.
Law officers have much more authority over the lives of Iowa citizens than other government employees have. Officers can deprive people of their liberty by arresting them, and officers have the ultimate power, the use of deadly force. It’s time for lawmakers to require state and local governments to make public the outcome of citizen complaints and internal investigations of job-performance allegations against officers. It’s good government — and common sense.