Accountability and secrecy don’t work together

BY RANDY EVANS

Let’s agree on something right from the start: Law officers serve a vital role in Iowa. No one wants to think what our state would be like without their round-the-clock service.

But that admiration and appreciation should not prevent us from asking questions of law enforcement agencies from time to time. The questions should not be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Nor should questions about specific cases be seen as a general criticism of police.

Two recent cases illustrate questions that are appropriate to ask, and Iowans deserve the cooperation of government, not roadblocks, when the public asks these questions.

Officials’ responses in the two cases show a serious flaw in Iowa’s public records law. It’s a flaw the Legislature needs to correct this year.

One case involves Cedar Rapids police officer Lucas Jones, who wounded a motorist he stopped on Nov. 1, 2016, for having a burned-out light next to his pickup truck’s rear license plate. Jerime Mitchell was paralyzed from the neck down by the bullet.

Instead of issuing Mitchell a ticket and letting him be on his way, Jones ordered the man out of the pickup because he thought he smelled marijuana. Mitchell jerked away as the officer tried to handcuff him.

Mitchell was shot as he drove off with the officer caught in the open door. A Linn County grand jury decided last month that criminal charges were not warranted against Jones.

Some people in Cedar Rapids believe the officer acted improperly. Their reaction intensified when video from the squad car camera was made public after the grand jury adjourned.

The video showed Jones following the pickup for several blocks, with the officer sometimes driving through stop signs. It was difficult to see whether the license plate light was working.

Here’s an important element in public reaction: In October 2015, Jones shot a man in Cedar Rapids. In that case, Jonathan Gossman ran when the vehicle in which he was a passenger was stopped on drug suspicions. Another officer yelled that Gossman had a gun, and Jones fired multiple times, killing Gossman.

No charges were filed against Jones.

Jones’ actions may have been completely appropriate in both cases, but people in Cedar Rapids want to know whether his judgment is clouded and is jeopardizing public safety. It’s not out of line for the public to want to satisfy itself.

Some people want to look more closely at the investigative files from Gossman’s death and the Jerime Mitchell case. But the Cedar Rapids police chief and Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said no. They say Iowa’s public records law allows law enforcement to keep investigative files secret forever.

In another case last month, the Plymouth County prosecutor offered the same justification for not releasing photos of a driver who was struck by the barrel of an Iowa State Patrol trooper’s rifle.

Shanne Arre was in a police chase in June 2015. He crashed his car in a field and then ran into tall grass. He was on his stomach when Trooper Jeremy Probasco found him.

Probasco said he feared Arre might have a gun, so he jabbed his rifle into Arre’s back. Arre said that left the outline of the barrel on his skin, causing pain for weeks.

The incident was recorded by a squad car video camera. The recording was made public last month after Arre pleaded guilty.

An Associated Press reporter asked to see the photos of Arre’s back, which presumably would verify or disprove Arre’s description of his injury. But the prosecutor declined, saying the photos are part of the confidential investigative file.

This isn’t how officials will maintain public trust and confidence in law officers. You don’t build trust with secrecy. Transparency should be mandatory when cops’ actions are questioned.

Otherwise, this secrecy invites public skepticism, and officials undermine the purpose of Iowa’s public records law, a law meant to ensure government accountability.

There is a place for privacy and confidentiality for police sources. But if the public cannot examine any records gathered by law officers when actions of police come under scrutiny, then the Legislature must make it clear such records cannot be sealed forever after cases are closed.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.