Iowa is out of step on public access to police video
Every few months, someone is killed or injured by police somewhere in the United States under circumstances that lead to inevitable questions about what exactly occurred.
Typically, answers come when video from the law officers’ squad car cameras or their uniform cameras is made public. Each time this occurs, there are two inescapable conclusions:
First, police in most states realize it is their obligation to release this video. They know that public faith and respect for law officers will suffer if citizens and journalists are prevented from viewing the footage, especially when an incident results in death or injury, most notably when the person was not armed.
And second, each time such video is released somewhere in the United States, it becomes obvious Iowa is out of step with most other states — because in Iowa, law enforcement agencies and government attorneys insist the video must forever remain off-limits because it is part of a confidential investigative file.
This insistence on secrecy harms public trust and respect for Iowa law enforcement.
The Iowa Legislature has been asked repeatedly in the past half-dozen years to address this lack of transparency in a thoughtful, measured way — balancing legitimate concerns for police investigations that are still underway with the need for public transparency and accountability.
But lawmakers have steadfastly refused to debate such proposals. Instead, issues of transparency and accountability have fallen victim to pressure to “back the blue.”
Julie Pottorff, the chair of the Iowa Public Information Board, spoke out on this issue earlier this month during an IPIB meeting. Pottorff is an attorney. Before retiring a decade ago, she spent 35 years in government service, concluding her career as Iowa’s deputy attorney general.
Like many Americans, Pottorff was deeply shaken by the videos of the savage beating a half-dozen police officers inflicted on an unarmed Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7 in Memphis, Tenn. The fatal beating was recorded on officers’ body cameras and on area surveillance cameras.
Pottorff told her fellow board members there were serious factual discrepancies between what the officers claimed in their written reports about the Nichols incident and what the videos showed occurred.
Likewise, Pottorff said, Chicago police officers’ reports about a 2014 altercation that ended with Laquan McDonald being fatally shot 16 times were contradicted a year later when the video from the incident finally was made public.
“The video really tells the story that the reports do not,” Pottorff said of Nichols’ beating. “It was so powerful.”
The impact of the footage of both deaths has led to important public conversations about the extreme actions some law officers engage in, she told her IPIB colleagues.
Pottorff said she has been disappointed Iowa lawmakers are unwilling to consider needed middle-ground solutions — a compromise that would allow some law enforcement video to remain confidential, while allowing for the release of certain other video, such as those showing incidents ending in an unarmed person being shot by officers.
But such a compromise will not be considered by the Legislature until law enforcement recognizes more transparency is critically important to maintaining Iowans’ respect and confidence in law enforcement. The Iowa Newspaper Association held a series of discussions with prosecutors and police several years ago in trying to find such a compromise. But law enforcement dug in and refused to budge, and the association’s efforts went nowhere.
Another sign of Iowa being out of step on transparency came in January, after the Iowa attorney general’s office completed its investigation of the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old Des Moines boy by three police officers.
Officers were called to an apartment by the boy’s stepfather after the teen pulled a gun on him. Officers tried to persuade the boy to drop the weapon, imploring him 70 times to put the gun down. When he raised the gun and pointed it directly at officers, they fired 14 shots, fatally wounding him.
There have been no assertions officers acted improperly during the incident. The boy’s relatives and a friend who were in the apartment did not criticize the officers or their decision to shoot.
Following the Des Moines Police Department’s longstanding transparency practice, at the conclusion of the state’s investigation police planned to release a diagram of the shooting scene, the recording of the 911 call, photos from the scene and videos from the officers’ uniform cameras.
But the Des Moines city legal staff stepped in and stopped the release. The lawyers said it would violate Iowa’s juvenile confidentiality laws if the video were made public.
The city attorneys said the video shows a minor committing a delinquent act — pointing a gun at police. Revisions made in Iowa’s juvenile justice laws in 2016 require records concerning a minor involved in a delinquent act to be kept confidential until a complaint is filed in court, the attorneys said.
Because Trevontay Jenkins died in this incident, no juvenile court charge was filed — and no video could be released, in the opinion of the city’s lawyers.
The analysis by the city’s legal staff, and the unwillingness of lawmakers to bring needed transparency to certain police incidents, means that sooner or later there is likely to be a nightmare scenario in which an Iowa teen or adult is gunned down or beaten to death, much like Tyre Nichols or Laquan McDonald, and police will refuse to release their video.
It is overdue for Iowa to catch up with other states in the important area of transparency of police video.