- Associated Press - Thursday, July 16, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A state board voted Thursday to spend another month investigating whether authorities should be forced to release more records about the mistaken killing of a woman by a Burlington police officer.

The Iowa Public Information Board directed its staff to take a closer look at complaints alleging state and local authorities have repeatedly violated the open records law after the shooting in January of 34-year-old Autumn Steele.

Board members rejected a recommendation from its executive director to dismiss the complaints filed by Steele’s family and the Hawk Eye newspaper, which alleged the city, county attorney and Division of Criminal Investigation have withheld public records. Board members said they needed to know more about the content of the records to determine whether to investigate any potential violations that occurred.

Open government advocates and a lawyer for Steele’s family called the case a key test for the two-year-old board, created to police Iowa’s open records and meetings laws.

“This case is exhibit one of why this board is so important, of why this board’s place is to protect the public interest and to give Iowans a voice, give family members a voice, give the people who have the right to see these records a voice,” said Adam Klein, an attorney representing Steele’s family. “But that’s only ever going to be effectuated if this board is willing to take a courageous stand.”

Officer Jesse Hill fatally shot Steele outside her home on Jan. 6 while responding to a fight between Steele and her husband. Hill meant to shoot at a growling family dog that investigators say bit him but missed and hit Steele twice. Her 3-year-old son and husband were just feet away. Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers declined to charge Hill with a crime and his return to the police force without discipline has sparked protests.

The Division of Criminal Investigation, which investigated the shooting, has released a 12-second body camera video showing Hill getting out of his squad car and entering a chaotic situation before quickly firing his gun twice. Authorities also have released Beavers’ report describing the DCI’s findings and her decision not to file charges.

The DCI has rejected requests for its investigative report and additional documents such as a 911 call, dash cam video from Hill’s car, additional body camera video and witness statements. The agency has claimed that those documents fall under a broad exemption to the open records law that allows police reports to be kept secret forever - even after an investigation is over. Beavers, meanwhile, has rejected requests by claiming she has given the records back to the DCI and is not their custodian. And lawyers for the city have worked to keep information from being released even to Steele’s family on a confidential basis.

Assistant attorney general Jeff Peterzalek, who represents the DCI, told the board Thursday the agency has complied with the law by releasing the “immediate facts and circumstances” of the shooting as required. He urged the board to adopt the recommendations by its executive director Charlie Smithson to dismiss the complaints.

But board members questioned whether more than 12 seconds of the video should have been released, whether dash camera video would shed light on what preceded the shooting, and whether the 911 call should be considered public.

“I’m just not comfortable closing the case on this today based on what I’m hearing,” said board member Gary Mohr. “I think it’s our responsibility to the people of Iowa to err on the side of saying, ‘not so fast,’ of taking a look at this again.”

Peterzalek said he would share the records in dispute with Smithson, who was directed to return with a new recommendation on how to proceed during its August meeting.

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