Police investigative files confidential — except for cops under scrutiny

The Iowa Public Information Board and a subcommittee of the Iowa Legislature have made it clear this spring that police investigative files, including squad car dash camera video and officer-worn body camera video, are confidential and do not have to be made available to the public or to families of victims of officer-involved shootings.

But another bill moving through the Iowa Senate puts a troubling twist on that legal presumption for confidentiality.

Senate File 568 is a bill recommended for passage by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill makes some commendable changes in state law.

For example, the bill would require police chiefs, sheriffs or the head of any other law enforcement agency in Iowa to report officer-involved shootings or officer-involved critical incidents to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation within 24 hours. The bill would require the Iowa attorney general’s office be notified, too.

Such critical incidents are defined as involving the use of a dangerous weapon by a law officer against a person that causes injury to any person; the fatal injury to any person except the officer resulting from the use of a motor vehicle by the officer; the death of a person who is in law enforcement custody, but not including a death resulting from disease or other natural causes; a fatal injury to a person resulting from the efforts of an officer trying to prevent a person’s escape from custody, making an arrest or otherwise gaining physical control of a person.

There is another commendable provision in SF 568. The bill would require the Iowa Department of Public Safety to compile a searchable database, and have it available online, with statistics and demographic information about every officer-involved shooting or officer-involved critical incident in Iowa.

But this is where the troubling aspects of the legislation begin, in the view of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

The bill would not allow the Department of Public Safety to include in the database the names of the officers who were involved or the names of any other people involved in the incidents.

The bill also would require law enforcement agencies to keep the name of an officer involved in an officer-involved shooting or other officer-involved critical incident confidential until the officer has been interviewed as part of the investigation.

There is no similar requirement for keeping the names of other people in these incidents confidential.

The legislation also requires that an officer who is the subject of an investigation of an officer-involved shooting or other critical incident be provided with a free copy of all video and audio recordings. Such recordings must be provided at least 48 hours prior to the officer being interviewed by investigators or before a grand jury proceeding.

Such records could not be released to the public without the written consent of appropriate police officials or a court order authorizing the release, according to language in the bill.

There is no similar requirement in the legislation that other parties in the officer-involved shooting or critical incident must be provided with copies of the recordings before their interrogation by police.

The Iowa FOI Council is concerned by these provisions. Lawyers for the Iowa Department of Public Safety insisted repeated during administrative proceedings growing out of the accidental shooting death of Autumn Steele that such audio and video recordings from the incident must be kept confidential to preserve the integrity of law enforcement agencies’ investigations.

But in officer-involved shootings and other critical incidents growing out of the actions of officers, those law officers are under investigation, too. Why would it jeopardize an investigation to release the recordings to the public, if the officer who is one of the subjects of the investigation is allowed access to these recordings?

And victims-rights advocates nationally have expressed concern about police officers being allowed to review such video before answering questions from investigators. That access to the video allows the officer to make sure his or her explanation of the events squares with what the video shows.

Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman, both officials of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a guest column in the Washington Post that allowing officers to get quick access to the videos allows them to “build a one-sided public-relations narrative” of what occurred.

Why is citizen access to these recordings in confidential police files such a problem if the officers whose actions are being investigated can view videos?

— Randy Evans, executive director, Iowa FOI Council