After an officer’s bullet pierced her oldest daughter’s chest, Gina Colbert’s core beliefs began to crumble.
As the daughter of an Army colonel raised during the Vietnam War, Colbert was taught to respect the military and law enforcement and she believed the judicial system was fair and would always hold the right people accountable.
But as the weeks turned to years and she continued to fight for information about how her 34-year-old daughter, Autumn Steele, was killed on Jan. 6, 2015, when Burlington Officer Jesse Hill slipped on a patch of ice and fired his weapon twice at the family dog, hitting Steele in front of her toddler, Colbert became disillusioned.
“Can you imagine if this happened to your child and people don’t want to give you information?” she said earlier this month, one day before a federal judge released sealed records in the case more than three years after her daughter’s death. ”What our family has been put through has been absolutely cruel. There’s been no way to move on from this.”
For more than three years, Colbert and her son-in-law, Gabe Steele, and her grandson’s father, Sean Schoff, have been fighting the state of Iowa and the city Burlington to release the records that they have argued would shine a light on how the government hid the truth of what happened to Steele.
Both officials in Burlington and the state have cited case law in Iowa as protection to keep many of the records that tell the story of what happened secret. Last week, Burlington City Manager Jim Ferneau said that the city has only tried to be consistent with state law throughout this difficult process.
But what started out as a quest for answers has turned into a legal battle across boards and multiple courtrooms and ultimately ended with Steele becoming the face of a larger push for accountability and transparency in Iowa that experts say has yet to be resolved.
And that’s why Colbert, a Columbus, Georgia resident, said she isn’t finished speaking up even though much of the evidence in her daughter’s case has finally come to light.
“It’s so important for the public to see what all went on,” she said. “That’s what they told us, that’s what they told the public, ‘we don’t have to tell you anything.’ They need to be held accountable. There needs to be transparency.”
Since Colbert’s daughter was killed, public outcry when law enforcement use their weapon to kill has swelled across the nation.
Born out of Ferguson, Missouri, when an unarmed black 18-year-old was killed by a white officer in 2014, protests, civil lawsuits and federal and local investigations have highlighted officers’ questionable and at times criminal behavior, misuse of authority and unfair targeting often among minorities that has led to more transparency and accountability in pockets of the country.
As a result, many police departments now require officers to use body cameras and require more officer training in de-escalation. Still, only a handful of officers across the country have been arrested for any officer-involved shooting and in even rarer cases convicted.
Meanwhile, some police unions and departments blame the rise in violence in neighborhoods to the heightened scrutiny, arguing that officers are afraid to do their jobs because of potential blowback from the public.
Yet criminologists such as Justin Nix, professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has studied what is known as the ‘Ferguson effect,’ argued in a 2017 report that what is more likely happening is due to the erosion of public trust in police in pockets of the country and the solution is for departments to be more open to mend trust in communities.
“Policing in America is undeniably at a crossroads,” Nix said. “Moving forward, it will be imperative for police agencies to be more transparent, particularly with their use of force policies and data.”
Yet in Iowa, open records experts say the laws on transparency remain murky when it comes to police records and while some areas of the country have embraced transparency, in recent years the state has become even more secretive.
“The state of Iowa is far more closed than what you find in the deep south where there is the perception of the good ole boys” said Randy Evans, Executive Director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, whose organization has been fighting for the state and local government to release the Steele records.
For example, when a man in Charlotte, N.C., was waiting in his pickup truck for his wife and was shot and killed by police in 2016, videos of the shooting were released four days later.
Yet, it took a federal judge intervening in Iowa — after years of a legal battle in the state’s Public Information Board that is still unresolved — before the full body camera video and witness and officer statement’s in Autumn Steele’s shooting were released.
During hearings before the Iowa Public Information Board, where over a span of three years board members have twice decided that the state and Burlington broke the law, both the Attorney General’s Office and Burlington’s attorneys argued that Iowa’s open records code allows investigative reports to be kept secret.
One of the case laws the government cites is a Polk County judge’s 2015 ruling that found the placement of a comma allowed the state to keep investigative police records confidential even after an investigation is closed. But Evans and other open records advocates have argued that those records should be public unless they could hurt an ongoing investigation.
The state’s Division of Criminal Investigation, which investigates the majority of officer-involved shootings across the state, including Autumn’s death, has continued to take a hardline stance on releasing investigative records and says they only have to release “immediate facts and circumstances” in a case. The highest law enforcement agency in the state also won’t explain its policies for how it investigates officer-involved shootings.
DCI spokesman Mitch Mortvedt says there’s a good reason for the relative secrecy that allows state agents to conduct thorough and impartial investigations.
Once complete, the investigations are given to the prosecuting attorney or the attorney general’s office where a decision is made on whether an officer was legally justified to use force, Mortvedt said.
“The Iowa Supreme Court has noted that … the ‘State has a very real interest in protecting the relative secrecy of much of the information its agents gather, analyze, and record during their investigation of criminal activity and crimes,’” Mortvedt wrote in a letter denying a reporter’s request for information on the DCI’s procedures for investigating officer-involved shootings.
But that kind of authority gives the government the power to cherry-pick from the facts and circumstances and release the information that serves their interest and suppress the information that does not, argued Adam Klein, an Atlanta attorney representing Steele’s now 10-year-old son, before the IPIB board.
“Respondents have not served the public interest, but merely their own,” Klein said.
However, not all police departments in Iowa follow this interpretation of the law and have cited transparency as one of the reasons to release records following an officer-involved shooting.
But since there are currently 73 exemptions to Iowa’s open records law and no state law related to the release of technology like body camera video footage, the policies across the state vary widely on how much information is released, which can erode the public’s trust in government, several lawmakers said.
“The problem is when the policy doesn’t pass common sense muster,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, who said he was met with resistance from police departments and local governments when he tried in 2015 to discuss a statewide policy for releasing body camera videos to the public. “I thought then and believe now that the evidence is even stronger to have a state policy.”
Paul Gowder, a University of Iowa constitutional law professor, says keeping families in the dark after an investigation has concluded seems shameful, and is especially concerning from a democratic standpoint.
“There’s no reason that investigations of officer-involved violence should ever be kept confidential,” he said. “Part of the underlining ideal of democracy is that when we trust people to carry guns on behalf of the state and use them on citizens that we ought to have something close to maximum level of visibility and control over how their doing so.”
When Gina Colbert got the call that her daughter was dead, her only memory is of her husband picking her up off the kitchen floor.
When she tried to tell Sean Schoff, the father of Autumn Steele’s then 7-year-old son, what happened, all she could do was scream when he answered the phone.
Schoff immediately drove home from work and sat down at his computer. As his mind raced, he typed the words into Google, “how to tell your child his mom is dead?”
The same week she was shot, Steele planned to visit her first born son in Georgia after missing the Christmas holidays. Now Schoff had to explain to his son that not only was she not coming to celebrate with him but she would never be coming back.
After peppering his dad with questions when Schoff sat him down that afternoon, the young boy finally asked, “Well, will [the officer] get in trouble?”
Schoff, who was formerly in the military, replied that he didn’t know, but he assured his son the police were doing an investigation and would get to the truth.
At first, a police official told Schoff that Officer Jesse Hill had been startled when the dog came up barking behind him. But they knew very little about how Hill had instead hit Steele when he fired two rounds in the couple’s front yard, as her toddler and husband watched her die.
But days later, when the DCI released a brief explanation on what happened, it said the officer was taken to the hospital for “dog bite(s).” But there had been no mention of the family dog, Sammy, a German shepherd-collie mix, biting the officer initially, Schoff said.
“All of a sudden it’s because of the dog,” Schoff said. “Now we’re talking about the dog and not the reckless guy shooting toward the family?”
But the family had little time to grieve before they found out Sammy’s life was on the line. The Burlington police had requested a hearing with the city’s animal control board where the citizen-panel would decide whether Sammy had acted viscously and should be euthanized.
Armed with thousands of signatures from Iowa residents, hundreds from Burlington, and animal rights activists, Colbert, who had buried her daughter a month earlier, drove to Iowa to fight to save the family dog to bring him home as a comfort to her grandson.
During the hearing, the police cited two scared postal workers, who weren’t present, and used Hill’s written testimony to argue that Sammy should be euthanized. In Hill’s statement, he said he was trying to separate the couple when he heard the dog growl and immediately felt the dog bite his upper left thigh. But the police offered no proof of a dog bite.
Two witnesses also spoke and told the board they didn’t see the dog attack Hill the way he described it.
“As soon as the officer saw the dog, he pulled his weapon and yelled at me to get my dog,” Gabe Steele told the board. “That’s when (the officer) stepped backwards and fell … When he fell, Sammy jumped toward him, and that’s when he fired off two rounds. I never saw Sammy bite or attack the officer.”
“My life wasn’t in danger. My child’s life wasn’t in danger. My wife’s life wasn’t in danger until that officer pulled his gun out,” Steele said.
“I don’t believe the dog is vicious,” said Ed Ranck, a neighbor, who had been standing outside with his own child when the shooting happened. “I didn’t see the dog bite the officer. To me, it looked like he was playing … I don’t think the dog was being aggressive.”
The board agreed, finding Sammy wasn’t vicious. And after Colbert picked him up from the shelter and began to drive back to Georgia, she became a little more hopeful.
But after crossing the Alabama state line, Gabe Steele called. County Attorney Amy Beavers had made her decision less than 48 hours after witnesses countered the police’s narrative.
There would be no charges, Steele told Colbert.
Weeks before Hill was cleared of any wrongdoing, Colbert had been warned this would likely be the outcome.
Shortly after Steele’s death, a mother in Utah whose son had been killed by police was the first to call. Then dozens of parents offered two pieces of advice: don’t expect any consequences for the officer and expect your daughter to instead face the criticism.
While the DCI gave very little details about what Hill did, officials immediately released details of Steele’s arrest the night before she was shot.
It’s true, Steele wasn’t supposed to be at her home when she went back that morning in January. The couple had argued the night before and Steele hit her husband with a spatula. She was arrested on a misdemeanor charge.
The next morning, a judge released her but told her not to return to her house without an officer present to get her personal belongings. Steele went back, her family said to get her toddler to go to Georgia and be with the rest of her family. But Gabe Steele had objected to her taking their son and the two had begun to argue again, and that’s when he called police and Hill responded.
Immediately, Colbert began to read comments online and witness how the focus shifted to her daughter and how she shouldn’t have been at her house. Yet, what about the officer who fired his gun in the direction of a family and was only inches away from hitting a toddler, where was the outrage, Colbert wanted to know. Shouldn’t Hill’s actions be the ones that were under the microscope?
It is rare in the United States for an on-duty officer to be charged after killing a citizen.
While officers have killed thousands of residents, Philip Stinson, a former police officer now criminologist at at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, found between 2005 and early 2017, 80 on-duty officers were charged with murder or manslaughter. Of the 80 officers arrested, only 35 percent were convicted as of early last year.
In Iowa, no officer has been charged with a crime for using deadly force between 2013 and 2018, a Gatehouse Media analysis found.
Of the 36 officer-involved deadly use of force cases in the state since 2013, more than a third of the victims either showed signs or were reported to be suicidal or having a mental health crisis when killed. Fourteen percent of the victims killed in Iowa were unarmed like Steele.
In November 2013, Ames Police Officer Adam McPherson shot unarmed 19-year-old Tyler Comstock through the back window of a work truck he had stolen from his father after leading police on a chase through the Iowa State University campus. Twice during the police chase, McPherson’s supervisors told him to back off.
While Ames Police investigated for more than a month whether the officer had broken department policy, ultimately deciding he hadn’t, the DCI completed their criminal investigation in two days. That same day the investigation was complete, then-Story County Attorney Stephen Holmes announced the force used was justified.
In another officer-involved shooting five months after Steele’s death, Des Moines Police Officer Vanessa Miller fired her gun through the rolled up window of her police car at 28-year-old Ryan Bolinger, an unarmed man walking toward her car. Following a news conference, a sergeant told a Des Moines Register reporter that Bolinger was, “walking with a purpose,” when the officer fired the deadly shot.
In Hill’s case, police also defended his actions and found he hadn’t broken any department policies. But shortly after Steele was killed, the police department held online and in-person training on how to correctly respond to a threat of an animal during a call using the least amount of force necessary. Despite Police officials declined to comment for this story but in a recent news release defended their decision and Hill’s actions.
To determine whether an officer’s actions are justified under the law, Iowa county attorneys have the leeway to decide whether to review case themselves, request the Attorney General’s Office rule on the case or present the case to a grand jury to make the decision, which varies across the state.
When Des Moines County Amy Beavers was given the DCI’s investigative file on the Steele shooting, she initially told reporters she would speak with the victim’s family before making a decision on whether to rule on the case herself.
That same day, Adam Klein, who represents Steele’s oldest son, called Beavers. But a few hours after they spoke, Beavers announced over the radio that she would make the decision herself with the family’s blessing. Klein said it was absurd that she had spoken for the family.
When she announced her decision a few weeks later, Beavers cited 12 facts that swayed her decision not to charge Hill, including that the dog attacked Hill, and that Hill had advised the Steeles to grab their dog and no one had.
Yet more than half of what Beavers’ called facts have been disputed by witnesses and the officer’s own body camera footage that showed the Steeles wouldn’t have had time to retrieve the dog before Hill fired his weapon. The DCI’s investigation showed that the only wound on the officer’s leg was a small abrasion and his pants weren’t ripped.
Although Beavers said there was nothing to charge Hill with criminally, Klein pointed out how Hill met the standard for involuntary manslaughter as a serious misdemeanor, as well as a reckless use of a firearm,a felony..
Distraught over Beavers decision, Colbert thought she would at least finally get to see the evidence. But when asked, Beavers told the family her office didn’t have the records any longer. Later, the state’s Public Information Board would find she did have the records and Beavers agreed to pay a $200 fine but not admit guilt.
For a brief moment, Colbert thought they were making progress after the DCI released 12 seconds of edited video from Hill’s body camera. Then the city agreed to give the family the records if they would not release them to the public.
However, right before signing a confidentiality agreement, the city’s attorney said her clients were concerned. How could the family guarantee that the public never got a hold of the records?
“We will not agree to a release of the information until such time as there is a court that can decide who may have access and under what circumstances,” the attorney’s email said.
Faced with the option to sue the city to find out what happened, Colbert didn’t want to profit off her daughter’s death.
Instead, the family found out there was another avenue. The Hawk Eye, another GateHouse publication, had already filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board and they decided they too would take their concerns to the public board, who could fight for the records on their behalf.
The nine-member oversight board was created in 2012 by the Iowa Legislature — after years of newspapers pushing for more transparency — to help enforce the state’s open meeting and open records laws on behalf of residents.
After months of delay, board members sided with the family, and agreed the state and city had violated the law and appointed a prosecutor for the case. But the victory grew hollow, as the Attorney General’s office and city appealed each decision in the case and often delayed turning over records to the board, causing the case to drag on for years.
In late 2016, an administrative law judge hired to reside over Steele’s case dismissed the state and police’s case for a technical error. The board took up another case against the DCI and Burlington, but at the time, the family saw no other option but to file a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court.
Each January at the anniversary of her daughter’s death, Colbert waited for Iowa lawmakers to step in. And each year, she was disappointed.
It was clear to Colbert and many others who followed the case in the Iowa Public Information Board meetings that the law on body camera videos and police investigative files needed to be addressed in state law.
Iowa is one of only 10 states that either interprets case law or has a statue that allows police to keep their investigative files secret after a case is closed, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press state guide of open records laws. The majority of states say once an investigation is complete those records, with some exceptions, should be public.
Also, 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws addressing the use of body camera videos, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But in Iowa, each year since 2015, proposals for laws on cameras or even legislation to create a workgroup to discuss best practices haven’t passed.
Creating laws on body camera videos are a legitimately difficult issue because they should balance citizens rights to privacy with the overwhelming public interest in police conduct, said Paul Gowder, a University of Iowa constitutional law professor.
In Steele’s case, while the Iowa Public Information Board has decided that the records should be released, IPIB executive director Margaret Johnson admits the board is still plodding new ground in the case.
As a solution, the board is working on a proposal for new legislation on best practices for releasing body camera videos that provides privacy protection for victims and witnesses of a any crime and still allows the public to have access to important cases, such as officer-involved shootings.
While Colbert still has to wrestle with the fact that the officer never faced any repercussions for his actions, she hopes her daughter’s death will lead to statewide changes.
Since the state’s public information board is still waiting on an administrative law judge’s final decision on Steele’s case, it was during the discovery process of their lawsuit that Colbert finally got to view the records. The family would go on to settle the suit for $2 million this summer and a federal judge ordered officials to unseal the evidence in the case.
But it was first in the Spring of 2017 — more than two years after Steele was killed — that Colbert got her answers.
She had never wanted to watch for herself what happened, but she now saw no other option, since she had witnessed the lengths the government has gone through to keep the details secret.
“It’s something I have to live with,” Colbert said. “If in the beginning, they had come forward and been transparent, no, I wouldn’t have had to see those things.”
Still, it took Colbert nearly a month of having the records to work up the courage to watch the video of her daughter dying in the snow and to hear Hill telling his supervisor, “I’m f——— going to prison.”
Her grandson wails in the distance.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at email@example.com or 423-596-7766.