When is Iowa going to catch up with the rest of the nation?
Every week or two, another case makes headlines around the United States when a police officer acts in a way that many people find troubling. Typically, within a few weeks, police video of the incident is released so the public can evaluate the officer’s actions.
Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register.
Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/
The latest example occurred in Salt Lake City, Utah, when a police officer manhandled and arrested a nurse in a hospital emergency department. The incident was recorded on two police officers’ body cameras, and the video has triggered outrage across the nation.
The nurse’s offense? She patiently and politely explained to the officer that she could not allow him to draw a blood sample from an unconscious patient who had been in a traffic accident.
The reason she could not allow that? Utah state law, hospital policy and a U.S. Supreme Court decision requires that one of three circumstances had to exist:
The patient had to give his consent. (He was unconscious and couldn’t.) He had to be suspected of a crime. (He wasn’t; a pickup crashed head-on into his truck.) Or the police officer needed a judge’s order. (The officer had not asked for one.)
None of those three circumstances existed. But the officer did not like being told “no,” so he barked at the nurse, “We’re done; you’re under arrest.” He wrestled her toward the door, handcuffed her and locked her in his squad car.
Public outage was instantaneous when the videos were made public recently. A criminal investigation is underway into the officer’s actions.
It’s important that the people of Utah were allowed to see the body camera video right away, while officials are still trying to figure out what the judicial system’s response should be.
The quick access in Utah is in sharp contrast to the lethargic, or nonexistent, public access to police body camera video and squad car video in Iowa.
The most egregious example: Today, more than two and a half years after Autumn Steele was shot to death by a Burlington police officer, the public still has not seen the entire video.
Steele was unarmed when she was fatally wounded in her yard in January 2015. The officer slipped while drawing his gun and killed Steele while trying to shoot her dog as it came toward him.
Burlington police, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Iowa attorney general’s office take the position that Iowa’s public records law is absolute and allows government to keep police body camera video and squad car video secret forever if they choose.
In the Burlington case, the prosecutor concluded within a few months of the tragedy that the officer would not face criminal charges for his actions.
Had the Utah hospital incident occurred in Iowa, Iowans might never get to see the troubling video of an out-of-control police officer arresting a nurse for following the law.
Based on legal arguments the attorney general’s office has made in the Burlington case, officials have the legal authority to deny the public access to such videos — even if they might provide evidence of the careless actions of a police officer.
Last week, a nationally distributed podcast discussed the Utah case and the broader implications of police officers who act above the law while enforcing the law.
James Harrigan, CEO of the Freedom Trust, a nonprofit organization that focuses on educating people about their freedoms, posed some thorny questions during the podcast: Is it necessary for police to be above the law to enforce it? Does the practice of granting police “qualified immunity” lead to irresponsible behavior?
“This is where we are at,” Harrigan said. “We have police who violate the law and can skirt around accountability because of this concept in the United States called qualified immunity.”
Qualified immunity shields police and other government employees, too, from civil liability in the course of performing their jobs unless their actions violate a person’s constitutional rights.
“It’s incredibly difficult to hold them accountable in any realistic way for actions they take in the pursuance of their jobs,” Harrigan said of police.
Because of the preferential treatment police receive in the legal system, accountability comes from public opinion and public pressure, Harrigan said.
That public opinion is beginning to shift because of video evidence the public sees from incidents like the one in Utah and elsewhere around the United States, he said. It’s not surprising law enforcement officials are opposed to public access to police videos, he added.
There’s a lesson in all of this for people in Iowa:
We need to tell our state representatives and senators we want them to revise Iowa’s public records law to make it absolutely clear that public access to police videos is mandatory, not optional, when the actions of officers are questioned.
We shouldn’t have to wait for another tragedy like the one in Burlington — or an outrageous incident like the one in Salt Lake City — for lawmakers to understand this is a reasonable change they must make.
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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.