In Focus: Iowa police body camera video sometimes revealing

How we did this story

This article is the first in a series called In Focus that will examine the use of police body cameras and access to police video in Iowa. 

The Iowa Newspaper Association and more than 50 Iowa newspaper reporters attempted to contact more than 300 Iowa law enforcement agencies starting in early November to request copies of their policies on body cameras and in-car dashboard cameras. 

These initial contacts were made mostly through email and cited Iowa Code Chapter 22, the open records law.

More than 200 agencies provided policies. As for the remaining agencies contacted, some do not use body cameras, some have outsourced law enforcement to neighboring agencies and others were branches of a larger agency, such as the Iowa Department of Public Safety, which has one policy for all units. 

But some Iowa sheriffs and police chiefs did not respond to multiple reporter requests made through email and by telephone. 

Readers who have experienced difficulty obtaining police video in Iowa or who have questions about this series can reach reporters at PoliceVideoTips@inanews.com.

If the public is allowed to see it

Editor’s Note: This article is the first in an occasional series called “In Focus” about public access to police body camera and in-car camera video in Iowa. 

by Erin Jordan, The Gazette, and Jared Strong, Carroll Times Herald

When an Iowa City police officer in 1996 accidentally shot and killed Eric Shaw, an artist working late in his father’s office, Troy Kelsay wasn’t the one who fired the gun but knew police had made a terrible mistake when he saw blood flow from Shaw’s body.

“Then, the standard practice was for police departments to say ‘no comment,’” said Kelsay, who, after 27 years in the Iowa City Police Department, is chief in University Heights, an enclave of about 1,100 tucked within Iowa City.

“The PD and city, wrongly I think, were saying ‘no comment.’ Saying ‘we screwed up’ wasn’t going to change anything, but you’re far better off saying ‘I f’ed up royally. What can I do to deal with the here and now? And what can I do in the future so this doesn’t happen again?’”

That experience made Kelsay strive to be as open as possible with the community, whether that means answering to a citizens’ review board or releasing body camera video to the public.

University Heights allows the public, including news reporters, to review video from police body cameras or in-car cameras according to Iowa Code Chapter 22, Iowa’s open records law, with permission of the chief or other authorized employee.  But not every law enforcement agency across Iowa has the same policy. Some departments say police video should be released to the public only if it “serves the interest” of the agency. Others make no mention of the video as a public record, although according to Iowa law, it is.

A decade after Iowa law enforcement agencies started using body cameras, Iowa has a widely divergent, unregulated system of rules and policies governing public access to a tool that many saw at the outset as a way of monitoring the conduct of police. Those disparities, found in a review of the policies of more than 200 agencies, can endanger the ability of everyday Iowans to answer questions about a family member’s death at the hands of police or prove their innocence.

For instance:

• Autumn Steele, a mother, was accidentally shot and killed in 2015 by a Burlington police officer while standing in her yard with her child. Video footage and other records released by order of a federal judge in a $2 million wrongful death lawsuit shows what the family says was a police effort to cherry pick information and witness statements to blunt police liability.

• Isaiah Hayes, a man from Wisconsin, was fa-

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