How Does Transparency Work With
Law Enforcement?

by Jennifer L. Crull

 

This last year has brought a spotlight on the use of body cameras and car dash cameras by law enforcement officers. This issue has landed directly in front of the Iowa Public Information Board. They have been faced with the task of answering some tough questions, such as what the public has the right to know, especially after the case is closed, and how you apply Iowa Code 22.7(5). Neither one of these questions has an easy answer.

Let’s first look at the second question, “How do you apply Iowa Code 22.7(5)?” Iowa Code 21 and 22 are very important to Iowans when it comes to the issue of transparency. Chapter 21 deals with our open meeting laws, and Chapter 22 deals with our access to records. Iowa Code 22.7(5) outlines the records that are kept confidential:

Peace officers’ investigative reports, and specific portions of electronic mail and telephone billing records of law enforcement agencies if that information is part of an ongoing investigation, except where disclosure is authorized elsewhere in this Code. However, the date, time, specific location, and immediate facts and circumstances surrounding a crime or incident shall not be kept confidential under this section, except in those unusual circumstances where disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual. Specific portions of electronic mail and telephone billing records may only be kept confidential under this subsection if the length of time prescribed for commencement of prosecution or the finding of an indictment or information under the statute of limitations applicable to the crime that is under investigation has not expired.[1]

So while some of the information concerning high-profile cases is released, we don’t have consistency between all agencies and jurisdictions. Video of the shooting that took place in 2011 in Johnson County was released to the press, whereas the Autumn Steele case in Burlington had a different approach.

This last year, the newspapers in Iowa have made you very aware of the Steele case. She was a 34-year-old mother who was accidentally shot and killed by a member of the Burlington Police Department. This case has raised many questions about what information should be released and what information won’t be released. There are two videos in question with this case. The first is the dash camera in the police car, and the second is the body camera that the officer was wearing.

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) is using this code section to reinforce its decision to not release the video in the above shooting and several other officer-involved shootings over the past couple of years. While each shooting was investigated by the Iowa DCI and prosecutors determined that all were justified, not releasing the videos doesn’t build trust in law enforcement system.[2]

Transparency is a word that we are quick to apply to government issues such as taxes and spending, but the truth is taxpayer money is used to support many things that taxpayers haven’t taken the time or energy to demand more transparency about. Law enforcement is one of those areas. Law enforcement, whether it is state, county, or local, is supported by your tax dollars. Therefore, to improve taxpayers’ trust in law enforcement, we must push to see increased transparency in that area. The issue of trust will increase as we see more transparency brought to this area.

Bill Monroe, a media representative on the Iowa Public Information Board, had the following to say about the issue of transparency: “The idea that you can have a case and have it closed and that information goes into a black hole never to be seen again doesn’t speak to transparency.”[3] Additionally, Monroe also stated, “Transparency leads to people having an opportunity to review these cases. It isn’t just for the press – it’s for the people.”[4] So as you can see, not everyone agrees with the court’s ruling.

When one thinks about transparency in law enforcement, one would believe that the body cameras and dashboard cameras would help increase transparency and help increase trust in our law enforcement. When a dramatic event occurs, we know from past experience that people have a tendency to not remember all the details, and these cameras provide a way to evaluate and review incidents as they occur.

There were 27 officer-involved shootings investigated by the Iowa DCI in 2014 and 2015.[5] While these shootings are investigated to determine if they were justified, we need to work to provide more transparency. Senate Study Bill 3088 was proposed during the last Legislative session to address this. Specifically this bill

requests the legislative council to establish an interim committee, composed of legislator members of both political parties from both houses of the general assembly, to meet during the 2016 interim to discuss issues relating to the storage, retention, public inspection, and confidentiality of law enforcement body camera video and audio recordings. The committee is directed to submit its findings and recommendations in a report to the general assembly by December 15, 2016.[6]

Therefore, as we move forward we have to work to let our Legislators know that we wish to see more transparency in law enforcement and make use of the technology that is already in place. As we move forward, technology is poised to improve our trust in law enforcement. For as you can see, neither question is easy to answer, plus we have to trust that our elected officials will work to bring the most transparency to this important issue.

Endnotes
[1] Iowa Code, https://www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/code/2016/22.7.pdf> accessed on April 26, 2016.
[2] Erin Jordon, “Iowa Legislators Consider Increased Transparency on Closed Police Investigations,” The Gazette, February 16, 2016, <http://www.govtech.com/public-safety/Iowa-Legislators-Consider-Increased-Transparency-on-Closed-Police-Investigations.html> accessed on April 7, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Iowa Legislative Website, “Senate Study Bill 3088,” <http://coolice.legis.iowa.gov/Cool-ICE/default.asp?Category=billinfo&Service=oldbillbook&ga=86&hbill=SSB3088&menu=text> accessed on May 20, 2016.

Jennifer L. Crull is an IT Specialist with Public Interest Institute.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is a monthly newsletter reporting on government transparency in our state.

IOWA TRANSPARENCY NEWSLETTER is published by Public Interest Institute at Iowa Wesleyan College, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, research and educational institute whose activities are supported by contributions from private individuals, corporations, companies, and foundations. The Institute does not accept government grants.

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