Branstad wants review of records law after shooting

Des Moines Register

Gov. Terry Branstad said on Nov. 28 that a review of the state’s open records laws is “appropriate” following disagreements about whether video of a Cedar Rapids officer-involved shooting should be made public.

“This is kind of a recent development of these police cameras,” he said. “I think it would be appropriate for us to carefully review our laws.”

The Linn County attorney has said he will have a grand jury decide whether criminal charges should be filed against a Cedar Rapids police officer who shot a man during a traffic stop earlier this month. The officer was not seriously injured, but the man was taken to University of Iowa Hospitals with critical injuries and reportedly is paralyzed.

According to a press release from city officials, a dashboard camera was in use during the time of the traffic stop, and the footage it recorded is being reviewed as part of the investigation. But city officials have refused to release that footage amid calls to do so from the shooting victim’s family and members of the public.

The officer, Lucas Jones, previously shot and killed a 21-year-old man who allegedly pointed a loaded gun at officers in 2015. He currently is on administrative leave.

Margaret Johnson, deputy director of the Iowa Public Information Board, said she agrees there needs to be clarification of existing law.

“We need some sort of interpretation of what it means,” she said. “Because obviously when the Legislature prepared or wrote chapter 22 (which outlines open records laws) there was no such thing as body cameras.”

She said police departments across the state are enacting policies based on their own interpretation of the law. She said many don’t release the information because they say it’s part of an officer’s investigative report, which is allowed to be kept confidential. Others choose to release it.

The board has asked state lawmakers to form a study committee to review several issues related to police video, including whether and when footage is considered a public record; the privacy rights of individuals captured on video; and how long agencies must keep the video. No committee has been formed.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws on the books governing the use of police body cameras. Many states do not require the use of cameras, but they do outline policies for departments that choose to use them and govern when footage should be released.

But legislation in Iowa died during the 2016 legislative session. One proposed bill would have required police officers to wear cameras and it would have allowed the footage to remain confidential unless those in the video permitted its release.

Branstad did not say whether he believes state law should be written to err on the side of transparency or confidentiality when releasing police camera footage.

“Generally, we want these things to be released,” Branstad said. “But when it comes to criminal investigations that’s a different subject, and we don’t want to jeopardize the ability to get a conviction by prematurely releasing video.”

The issue gained heightened attention in Iowa after a police officer fatally shot a Burlington woman in January 2015 during a domestic dispute call. The officer did not face criminal charges.

Burlington police have released only a 12-second segment of the video from body cameras worn by two officers. The Iowa Public Information Board voted to launch legal action against Burlington and several state agencies over their refusal to release the footage in its entirety. Legal action is ongoing.