You can’t build trust with secrecy

The following column appeared in the Bloomfield Democrat on Sept. 28, 2016. The author is Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.


The events of the past couple of weeks once again have shined a spotlight on the value of video recordings in law enforcement.

Police cameras recorded two tragic incidents in which men were shot to death by police officers during what started as routine encounters. One shooting was in Tulsa, Okla., where an SUV had broken down. One was in Charlotte, N.C., where a man was waiting in his pickup truck for his wife to come out of their apartment.

Videos of the incidents were released last week for public viewing, discussion and evaluation — three days after Terence Crutcher died in Tulsa, and four days after Keith Scott died in Charlotte.

The videos are not easy to watch. No one wants to see a human life end in a puddle of blood on a road or parking lot. But the recordings gave the public the opportunity to see and judge for themselves how law officers handled each case when faced with high stress decisions in which some officers believed their own safety was in jeopardy.

The openness in the way police chiefs reacted to demands for access to the video recordings — in Tulsa, willingly, and in Charlotte, grudgingly — stands in sharp contrast with the position taken by two of Iowa’s top law enforcement officials.

Attorney General Tom Miller and Roxann Ryan, commissioner of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, have opted for secrecy over openness in far too many instances. Iowans should be troubled by their view that dashboard camera videos and body camera videos can be forever sealed from public inspection.

Keeping the public in the dark when law officers’ actions are questioned only serves to undermine public trust. People’s faith in law enforcement agencies depends in large measure on openness, not secrecy, and transparency is the best way to put distrust of police to rest.

That’s a lesson that Miller and Ryan seem to forget. It’s certainly a lesson that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel learned the hard way.

The Chicago Police Department stonewalled for 13 months after Laquan McDonald, 17, was shot to death two years ago. The department refused for months to release dash camera video of the incident.

Multiple officers said the teen was threatening police with a knife. But when the video finally was made public, it showed McDonald was walking away from the officers when he was shot in the back. The teen fell to the ground, but the officer fired a dozen more bullets into McDonald.

Nothing in Iowa’s public records law prevents body camera or dash camera video from being made public. But Miller and Ryan take the position that those recordings and most other investigative materials will be kept confidential except for the “immediate facts and circumstances” in a crime or incident.

A couple of cases illustrate the folly of their policy.

In January 2015, Burlington police Officer Jesse Hill went to a home in response to a report of a domestic dispute between Gabriel and Autumn Steele. When the family dog began growling and moved toward Hill, he slipped on the snowy ground as he drew his gun and fired two shots.

One bullet struck Autumn Steele in the chest, killing her. No charges were filed against Hill.

Officials released 12 seconds of video recorded by police cameras, but the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has steadfastly refused to release the entire body camera video — in spite of requests from Steele’s distraught family and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper.

In June 2015, Shane Arre of Merrill was arrested by Plymouth County sheriff’s deputies and an Iowa State Patrol trooper following a high-speed chase. Arre suffered “a visible injury” from a rifle carried by Trooper Jeremy Probasco, according to reports, although no shots were fired.

The State Patrol has refused to make public a dash camera recording of the incident. Arre still has not come to trial, and Ryan, the public safety commissioner, said the video will not be released to preserve Arre’s right to a fair trial.

Arre is unlikely to ever come to trial, however, because he’s facing more serious drug charges in federal court. If the video is not used in a trial on the pursuit charges, Ryan said it will become part of Probasco’s confidential personnel file.

So what you have in these two Iowa cases is the state’s use of secrecy to protect the Burlington police officer from having his actions scrutinized by the public and to protect the State Patrol from public scrutiny and embarrassment over a trooper’s apparent unprofessional behavior.

Miller and Ryan are trying to insulate government employees, and government agencies, from public accountability. By keeping Iowans in the dark in the Burlington and Plymouth County cases, there’s one conclusion to be drawn:

Miller and Ryan believe it is more important to protect the Burlington Police Department and Iowa State Patrol from unflattering attention than it is to let the public see the videos and evaluate the actions of officers who work for the people of Iowa.

And that’s the wrong attitude.