There was snow and ice on the ground in Burlington on the morning of Jan. 6, 2015.
About 10:30 a.m., police were summoned to 104 S. Garfield Ave., where Autumn and Gabriel Steele were arguing outside their house.
Less than a minute after Officer Jesse Hill arrived to investigate, Autumn Steele, 34, was on the ground. She had been mortally wounded by a bullet accidentally fired from the officer’s gun.
Hill said he was defending himself from the family’s dog, which came growling toward him. He slipped on the snow as he drew his gun from its holster.
Since the tragedy, Hill has been cleared of involuntary manslaughter or any other crime. That decision by Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers has led to criticism and public protests.
The public reaction was similar recently when the City of Burlington agreed to pay $2 million to the Steele family to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city and officer Hill.
But for three and a half years, the city has been adamant about one thing: It will not allow the public to review evidence gathered during the investigation of Steele’s death, beyond the first 12 seconds of video recorded by officer Hill’s body camera and a written statement prepared by Beavers to explain why no charges would be filed in the tragedy.
None of the other materials gathered by Burlington police and state investigators will be made public, the city has insisted.
Not the remainder of officer Hill’s body camera video recorded at the Steele home.
Not the body camera video recorded by officer Tim Merryman, who arrived shortly after Hill.
Not the initial report Hill prepared or his interview with an agent from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation or his deposition in the lawsuit.
Not the records of Hill’s medical examination conducted in response to his statements about being attacked by the dog.
Not any of the other documents in the DCI’s case file.
That intransigence by Burlington led to an important hearing in U.S. District Court in Davenport last week. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council asked that all pleadings in the wrongful-death lawsuit be made public. The council also asked that the evidence submitted to the judge be unsealed, too.
Michael Giudicessi, the lawyer representing the Iowa FOI Council, made the case why the public needs to be able to scrutinize the actions of its police officers in tragic situations like the one that occurred on Garfield Avenue in Burlington.
“There is no compelling basis to keep these documents secret,” he told U.S. District Judge James Gritzner. “… Such secrecy undermines the accountability of government officials and the public’s acceptance of the justness of any result reached through use of the federal courts.”
The Iowa FOI Council’s legal brief drove home the point:
“This court should vigilantly protect the principle of public access to judicial records by granting the pending motion to unseal. Nowhere is this truer than in a case where a police officer accidentally shot a young mother, at a time of reckoning over use of force by law enforcement across America.”
There are few situations where government has greater power than that which occurred on the morning of Jan. 6, 2015 --- when a representative of the City of Burlington ended the life of a mother of two young children. Asking questions about what occurred and why it occurred should not be interpreted as anti-police.
At the very least, Hill acted recklessly in drawing his weapon when innocent people were so close. At the worst, the city and prosecutor may have been motivated by a desire to exonerate the officer in this horrible tragedy.
And Hill may have eroded his credibility by claiming the dog viciously attacked and bit him. David O’Brien, the lawyer for the Steele family, told the judge last week that Hill “didn’t even need a Band-Aid to cover the injury.”
One thing is absolutely clear:
The public should have access to the court documents and materials gathered during the investigation of Steele’s death so the people can evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves whether the correct decision was made or whether Jesse Hill received preferential treatment from police and the prosecutor because he wears a police uniform.
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and wrote this column for Iowa Watch. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.