Make police body cam videos public

The promise of body cameras is faltering in Iowa, under the weight of secrecy and self-preservation. And the program’s foundation will keep crumbling until the General Assembly backfills the crater that time eroded in the state’s right-to-know law.

Transparency and accountability was the pledge when police departments started strapping cameras to officers’ chests. Cops and the public alike will be protected by the first-person perspective, law enforcement officials promised in 2014 as Ferguson, Mo., burned.

Yet a 2015 fatal shooting in Burlington has exposed the inherent flaw in Iowa’s Freedom of Information Act, a law tweaked when email was shiny and new. Burlington Officer Jesse Hill was cleared of wrongdoing by a Des Moines County prosecutor. Hill walked into a domestic dispute and was attacked by the couple’s dog, officials said. He fired at the aggressive German shepherd mix and struck owner Autumn Steele instead.

But the Burlington Police Department flouted the basic tenets of transparency when, after significant public pressure, just 12 shaky seconds of Hill’s body camera video were released. Steele’s face briefly comes into view as Hill approaches her. She can be heard screaming, presumably at her husband, Gabriel. A snarling dog can be heard, and Hill commands the Steeles to “get your dog.”

Two shots. Mrs. Steele grunts. Fade to black.

In December, the Iowa Public Information Board kept alive the Steele family’s quest to see more, overruling the agency’s staff by a razor-thin 4-3 vote. The Burlington Police Department contends that FOIA doesn’t require the video’s release. The board’s dissenters said they, too, prefer that FOIA require the full release of body camera footage. The problem, they argued, is with the law itself, which says nothing about the new technology.

And they’re right.

Now the rush is on in Des Moines, as both sides are seeking legal clarity from the General Assembly. Many police departments want body cameras largely exempted from FIOA. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is rightly fighting back, lobbying for greater transparency in the code.

One side is looking out for itself, while again reinforcing public mistrust. The other side is defending the citizenry.

A slew of Iowa’s largest police departments flout nationally accepted procedural guidelines for body cameras, The Des Moines Register reported. In fact, the officers involved in an incident get a private showing of the video footage. And then, as in Burlington, the public is left with only the official line.

Yet, as Americans are now keenly aware, reality is far more complicated than what’s described in police reports.

It was true when a passerby’s cellphone captured New York City officers choking-out a black man in 2015 for the laughable violation of slinging individual cigarettes. It was true when security cameras caught a Cleveland officer leaping from his cruiser and immediately gunning down a 12-year-old holding a toy firearm in a public park. It’s the non-police videos, not the official documentation, that are now reshaping America’s shoot-first brand of policing.

The U.S. Department of Justice, state police agencies and local departments, amid the carnage and public anger, pledged to do better. Pricey body cameras, they swore, would be the answer – an unbiased, truth-teller protecting both cop and citizen alike.

– The Quad-City Times. Feb. 5, 2016