Cedar Falls won’t charge twice for access to officers’ body-cam video

By: - December 9, 2022 10:23 am

Body cameras and batteries are docked for charging and downloading video. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

The city of Cedar Falls has reversed its decision to charge the Iowa Capital Dispatch $700 for body-cam video of police officers clashing with an EMT on an emergency call.

The reason: The EMT involved in the call has already paid the $700.

Last week, the Capital Dispatch requested a copy of the video, noting that it had already been shared, unedited and at no cost, with administrators at a local hospital.

In response, the Cedar Falls city clerk denied the request, stating the unedited video contained confidential information that included “the identity of the patient, medical history and treatment information.”

She said the city was willing to create an edited copy of the video, which would require 16 hours of labor at $43.79 an hour, for a total cost of $700.75.

After the Capital Dispatch reported the city’s proposed fee, the EMT in the case alerted the news organization to the fact that on Monday of this week he had paid the city the $700.75 to create an edited version of the video.

The Capital Dispatch then contacted Cedar Falls City Attorney Kevin Rogers and pointed out that the editing work was already paid for by someone else who had requested the video.

“Gosh, I don’t know how we could charge you again for work that we didn’t do,” Rogers said. “I don’t think that would be proper. If the document already exists after we’ve done our work. I guess you’re just fortunate to be second in line. We only charge for actual costs incurred.”

Like many cities and counties in Iowa, Cedar Falls doesn’t consider compliance with public-records requests to be part of its normal, taxpayer-funded work, and so it charges fees to cover its expenses. That can lead to disparities in which one party is charged hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars for information that others can subsequently access at little or no cost.

Four months ago, the city of Cedar Falls provided an unedited copy of the police officers’ body-camera footage, shot during an Aug. 3 call to a woman’s residence, to administrators at an area hospital. The video was sent because the police department objected to the behavior of a hospital-employed EMT who was on the scene.

The video allegedly shows the officers interacting with William Abernathey, then a critical-care paramedic for Sartori Memorial Hospital. Abernathey and the officers were at the residence in response to a call about a woman who had threatened suicide.

The woman didn’t want to go to the hospital, and at one point, Abernathey and the officers engaged in a heated argument, with Abernathey insisting the woman needed to be transported to the hospital immediately.

The next day, Craig Berte, the city’s public safety director, wrote to two hospital officials who manage and direct ambulance services, and said he was making a copy of the body-cam videos for them, which he then provided at no cost. He wrote that he was looking “for a solution where our employees do not have to work at any calls where Bill Abernathey is present.”

Hospital officials who reviewed the video immediately fired Abernathey, concluding he had been rude and intimidating and had shown a lack of compassion for the patient.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.