Court to decide if police shooting records should be public

One of the thorniest ongoing government accountability issues in Iowa deals with the question of public access to law enforcement videos and police investigative documents when officers are involved in fatal shootings.

The Iowa Public Information Board has been wrestling with this issue in the case of the accidental police shooting of a Burlington woman, Autumn Steele, outside her home in January 2015. The IPIB is expected to discuss a proposed ruling in the case at its regular meeting on Thursday.

The IPIB submitted a proposed revision of the public records law to the Iowa Legislature, but the bill appears to have died in a subcommittee and is unlikely to move forward.

The Iowa Supreme Court has before it a case that centers on the question of whether the public should have access to these investigative documents. The case was argued before the justices earlier this month.

Here is The Des Moines Register’s report on that hearing:

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By Tyler J Davis, Des Moines Register, Feb. 6, 2019

The Iowa Supreme Court will decide whether certain police records pertaining to a shooting by an officer that left a man paralyzed should be kept confidential from the public.

The appeal comes after Linn County District Judge Patrick Grady declined to enter a protective order requested by the city of Cedar Rapids and officer Lucas Jones, the defendants in a civil lawsuit.

Attorneys for the defendants claim that Grady abused his discretion by ordering them to share with the plaintiffs, among other things, investigative reports from the 2016 shooting of Jerime Mitchell, 41, without barring them from sharing the records with the public and news media.

Mitchell’s case against the city and Jones is set for a 2020 trial. Tuesday’s appeal could have a large effect on how much the public knows about the details surrounding the shooting, which left Mitchell paralyzed from the neck down.

“We are willing to produce all the requested records to the plaintiffs as long as they are retained as confidential in the scope of this litigation,” attorney Bill Stone told justices Tuesday. “This protective order does not impede anybody’s ability to prepare for trial.”

Stone said the protective order he is seeking is the same one granted by a district court in a case where a Burlington mother was shot and killed by a police officer. In that case, a federal judge eventually ordered that some records and video be released.

But Laura Seelau, an attorney for Mitchell, said more public information is better than less. She said the defendants have shared some case materials with her, but they are currently marked confidential.

“The thrust of the Open Records Act is in favor of disclosure,” she said. “At this point in time, the information that’s out in the public is that which the defendants have put there — the information that they’ve decided the public should know.”

When justices questioned Stone about why the records should be kept from the public, he said that releasing some information could compromise future investigations of shootings involving officers.

“These are confidential public records” under Iowa law, he said. “Police officer investigative reports are to be retained as confidential so that the law enforcement is allowed to interview witnesses, do investigations, prepare memorandums.”

The attorneys clashed over whether justices should employ a “balancing test” and assess the probable harm of either releasing or withholding the information.

Seelau argued that the balancing test was the correct standard. But Stone said the Legislature’s intent was clear in the law: Certain materials related to a police investigation are not public information. The immediate facts and circumstances in the case have been released, and that’s what’s required, Stone said.

Asked why keeping the information confidential would hurt her case, Seelau said the burden of proof for a protective order is on the requesting party.

“The defendants have not set forth any specific statements about what risks there are to the public. They made mere conclusionary statements, and that’s insufficient for a protective order,” she said.

A ruling is expected later this year.

Mitchell was shot near Coe College on Nov. 1, 2016, during a traffic stop. He was pulled over for having a faulty license plate light and tried to flee while Jones was near his car. Jones became caught in the door and fired shots toward Mitchell. Marijuana and digital scales were found in Mitchell’s pickup truck, but no charges were filed against him.

Jones has not been charged in the incident either.