Public needs to see for itself how police act

Des Moines council members asked Police Chief Dana Wingert to clarify policies on avoiding violence during stops. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)

There’s a quiz today.

How would the tragic death of George Floyd have been perceived if the encounter occurred on a deserted side street in the middle of the night, rather than on a busy street in a business area in broad daylight?

How would our understanding of the events have been different if there were no citizens around to record the scene on their cell phones and the only descriptions were the ones police officers provided?

What if the only visual record was on the body cameras worn by the officers?

The cell phone video is uncomfortable to watch. But viewers around the world have been transported right there curb-side in Minneapolis as a police officer, with his hands in his pockets, calming sits with a knee across Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while the life is forced out of the 46-year-old man.

In Iowa, the answers to my questions are troubling, too, unfortunately.

If this tragedy happened in our state, there is no guarantee the public would have access to the officers’ body camera video or any video recorded by cameras mounted in the officers’ squad cars, or the disciplinary record of a police officer accused in someone’s death.

The law gives police officials wide latitude to decide what to make public from their investigations. Increasingly, however, many state and local law enforcement agencies are refusing the public’s requests for such video and written records. They are forcing the public to go to court if citizens, or even the families of victims, want to see these materials.

This is wrong on so many levels.

It is wrong because government has no greater power than the ability of its police officers to take the lives of people who come into contact with its officers.

It is wrong because the relationship between police and the public hinges on trust and respect and cooperation. Secrecy does nothing to strengthen that foundation. In fact, trying to avoid public accountability often builds distrust.

The sue-us-if-you-don’t-like-it practice in Iowa is wrong because few people or organizations have the tens of thousands of dollars it costs when citizens to hire lawyers to fight for public access to the factual record and video from incidents involving citizen interaction with law officers.

You don’t have to go to Minneapolis to see what distrust of law enforcement looks like.

Consider the cases of Drew Edwards, 22, a construction worker in Maquoketa, who died in June 2019 after being shocked at least five times from a police officer’s Taser weapon. Some of those shocks were administered while Edwards was face down on the ground, with a deputy sheriff sitting on his legs and the police officer sitting on Edwards’ head, pressing down on his back.

Think about the case of Isaiah Hayes, 25, a mechanic from Ashland, Wis., who was shot to death by a Polk County deputy sheriff in July 2018. Officials have refused journalists’ requests to release a dash camera video of the shooting or to say how many times Hayes was shot or whether he was shot in the chest or the back.

Consider Autumn Steele, 34, a mother in Burlington, who was fatally wounded in January 2015 by a police officer who became scared and recklessly killed her while trying to shoot her dog. The officer had been sent to the Steele home to settle an argument between Steele and her husband.

Then there is Amanda Lassance, 36, a Jackson County prosecutor in Maquoketa, who was given two rides by law officers, but no sobriety test, after a 9-1-1 call from her boyfriend in April 2019 that they were parked along a highway south of Maquoketa and that she had been driving while intoxicated.

None of this is intended to minimize the difficult and sometimes dangerous work law officers do to serve and protect the public. Many officers perform their jobs quite well and with skill and bravery and judgment that balances safety with civil rights.

But in each of these four cases, video records of the incidents, along with facts that are fundamental to the public’s understanding of what occurred, were quickly sealed away from public inspection by the law enforcement agencies whose officers were involved.

That secrecy prevents the public from fully understanding what occurred during each of these encounters and judging whether the officers acted appropriately.

David O’Brien is a Cedar Rapids lawyer who specializes in civil rights cases. He represented the family of Autumn Steele and now represents Drew Edwards’ family.

In January, O’Brien gained the release of the 48-minute body camera video of Edwards’ interaction with a sheriff’s deputy and Maquoketa police officer. The video shows Edwards being hit by Taser darts and culminates in Edwards being unconscious and not breathing as an ambulance finally arrives.

When he made the Edwards video public, O’Brien said, “You can see in the video, he’s not a risk to anybody. He’s not threatening anybody. He’s just going to walk away. Let him go home. Let him cool down. You can go back later and arrest him.”

The secrecy that has enveloped these cases contrasts with what the Iowa Supreme Court said in a 1994 decision involving access to a report on a state investigation into alleged corruption: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants. Shining the light of day on the actions of our public officials deters misconduct that thrives in darkness.”

In Iowa, we need more sunlight and less secrecy.