Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers
Des Moines Register. August 23, 2018
Release body-camera video to maintain confidence in entire justice system, including police
After a two-year fight, police officers’ body-camera video and records related to the fatal shooting of a Burlington woman will now be made public. State and local officials lost their battle to keep the records secret after the case took a detour through federal court.
It is a welcome outcome even if it is years late and the disclosure comes through the back door. But the fact remains the documents should have been released by law enforcement authorities, and their continued resistance to doing that sets a bad precedent.
The video and records will help shed light on the tragic death of Autumn Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two who was shot by Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill in 2015. Hill, responding to a domestic dispute at the Steele home, fired his weapon at a dog that the officer said was attacking him, and a bullet struck Steele in the chest.
Apart from a 12-second clip from the video from Hill’s body camera, Burlington and state law enforcement authorities have refused to release more video and other police records. Their resistance continues even though Hill has been cleared of any wrongdoing and the investigation is closed.
While the Burlington Hawk Eye and other Iowa news organizations fought for access to the video and police records, the documents were introduced under seal as evidence in a federal civil suit filed by the Steele family against the city of Burlington and Officer Hill.
The suit was settled out of court with a $2 million payment to the Steele family. In the meantime, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council — whose members include the Register, other Iowa media organizations and open-government advocates — intervened in the case and urged U.S. District Judge James Gritzner to unseal all documents filed in the case.
Which is precisely what he did in an Aug. 14 order that will eventually make public videos from Hill’s and a second officer’s body cameras, a 911 call, excerpts of sworn depositions, Hill’s narrative report, medical records showing his injuries from the dog attack and an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent’s deposition.
Gritzner’s ruling was based on a principle rooted in British common law and the First Amendment that has guided the American judicial system since its founding: We do not have secret courts in this country.
With few, well-defined exceptions, courtrooms and court records are open to the public. That is true in part because parties should not be able to use the publicly funded courts to litigate their private causes in secret, and in part because it assures the public can judge the performance of the courts.
The city and Hill argued that the Burlington documents are not court records because the judge did not rule on the parties’ separate motions to dismiss the suit before the settlement.
Gritzner disagreed. He cited federal appeals-court precedent and said, “if judgment by the court was a precondition to judicial record status, numerous pleadings and other filings relating to merit-based motions would never be available for public scrutiny, leaving the general public in the dark about the core issues that drive a lawsuit.”
Even if the documents are court records, the defendants argued, they should remain sealed because they are confidential under Iowa law. “This argument is problematic in several respects.” Gritzner wrote. “If the court’s judicial records were beholden to Iowa’s confidentiality rubric, then certain records filed in conjunction with motions for summary judgment could never be released,” which he said “plainly conflicts with the federal common-law right of access to judicial records.”
Finally, the defendants argued that the first 12 seconds of Hill’s body-camera video have already been released, so there is no need to release the remainder. But the defendants themselves submitted the complete video to the court to support their argument that the Steeles’ wrongful-death contentions were not supported by the evidence.
“The fact that both parties made representations about unreleased portions of Hill’s body camera video at a public court hearing adds weight to the presumption of access in this case,” Gritzner wrote.
Indeed, for the very reasons the opposing parties in the civil suit introduced the complete videos and police records in court to plead their case, the people have a right to see the complete evidence to decide for themselves what the truth is about what happened that day in Burlington.
Hill has been exonerated by law enforcement authorities who had all the information — information that members of the public do not have. The public has a legitimate interest in knowing all of the facts and circumstances any time a law enforcement officer fatally shoots an unarmed, innocent citizen.
Gritzner’s ruling ordering release of the Burlington records was based in large part on preserving public confidence in the courts. Law enforcement authorities in Iowa should have the same concern for public confidence in their performance.
The Legislature should take action to make that happen by amending Iowa’s open-records law to guarantee the public’s right to see police records in general and body-camera videos in particular.
Toward that end, the Iowa Newspaper Association is inviting representatives of law enforcement, the news media, legislators, civil liberties and victims’ rights groups and others to meet in the coming weeks. The goal is to find consensus on proposed legislation for the 2019 session that will create a uniform standard for recording, storing and publicly releasing police videos.
Such legislation is long overdue.
The growing use of police body cameras is an opportunity for law enforcement to establish and maintain credibility with the public. That is true, however, only if the Legislature assures that the people are able to see both the good and the bad that is recorded on those cameras.
Quad City Times. August 23, 2018.
Tibbetts murder is about men, not immigrants
OK, Republicans. Let’s talk about the real issues presented in the sickening murder of 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts.
Spoiler: It has nothing to do with immigration, and everything to do with violence against women.
Of course, admitting that fact wouldn’t work well for those who sling racial angst for a living, would it?
Republicans twisted Tuesday to politicize Tibbetts’ murder after her body was recovered in a rural Iowa cornfield. Tibbetts’ accused murderer, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old undocumented immigrant farmhand, led officials to Tibbetts’ body, police said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds couldn’t pass up the moment and took a shot at a “broken immigration system.” So, too, did U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst. Vice President Mike Pence joined in on the act.
After all, it was a bad day for the Trump administration. And the murder of a young woman in Iowa provided a convenient deflection from the verdicts and guilty pleas raining down in federal court on President Trump’s associates.
It was, on all acceptable levels, a truly shameless, cruel and intellectually corrupt display of political opportunism. And let’s be absolutely clear — the man accused of murdering Tibbetts should face the full force of the criminal justice system, should he be proven guilty in court.
But such a politically motivated assault on reality should not stand uncontested. Theirs is a twisted, unsupported argument that serves to only demonize entire populations due to the alleged crime of a single man, a maneuver that’s notably absent when the accused is a white man. It’s a made-for-TV script to stoke racial anger and resentment to the detriment of relatively powerless minority populations. It’s a bogus attempt to scapegoat immigrants for all of society’s ills.
And, like seemingly most things in right-wing politics, the facts just don’t support the argument.
A slew of research says illegal immigrants commit substantially fewer crimes than native-born U.S. citizens. One recent study published in the journal Criminology, using state level data from 1990 to 2014, found that the larger a community’s population of undocumented immigrants, the lower the violent crime rate. Another concluded undocumented immigrants are significantly less likely to commit violent crimes than native-born Americans. These are just examples of the available data, which show a sweeping consensus that directly refutes the party of “Mexicans are rapists and murders.”
But the truth-bombs falling on Republicans’ heads don’t stop there. Tibbetts’ accused killer is indeed an undocumented immigrant. He’s also a man. Both categories apply, but only one is relevant.
On July 18, Rivera followed Tibbetts as she jogged in Brooklyn, Iowa, police said. He circled the block several times, police said. He eventually chased her down on foot, police said.
Dubuque Telegraph Herald. August 22, 2018
Reading still the bedrock of education
The Iowa State Fair has concluded, thus permitting K-12 schools to open for another academic year this week. Before the last funnel cake trailer left the fairgrounds, an Iowa program to establish a half-dozen “computer science elementary schools” was unveiled.
Gov. Kim Reynolds and her fellow co-chair of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, Roger Hargens, chief executive officer of Des Moines-based Accumold, announced that these schools will come from “high-poverty” areas and will be transformed to offer “engaging computer science instruction,” according to the governor’s news release.
The model for this project is Loess Hills Computer Science Elementary School in Sioux City, which started its program in 2015 and began teaching computational thinking, problem-solving and teamwork.
Reynolds said the program aligns with the Future Ready Iowa initiative. Indeed, for several years now, improved education and preparation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has been identified as a critical need for future success.
“Computer science is a new basic skill in the 21st century,” Reynolds said in her news release. “It is critical to build a strong foundation early so students are ready for outstanding career opportunities in a technology-driven economy. These are Iowa jobs that pay well with a lot of potential for growth.”
No one could — or should — argue with the position that STEM education and STEM jobs will be key in the future. However, we can’t help but wonder whether, in the excitement surrounding new educational endeavors, such as STEM, insufficient attention is being paid to the bedrock of education — reading.
As the state is unveiling plans for computer science elementary schools, its elementary-school students are trending downward in reading proficiency, according to state data from standardized tests.
Sure, learning to read doesn’t have the sizzle and pop of programming or operating computers. But how far can students expect to go in STEM training and careers if they can’t read well enough to keep up with the demands of school and, later, the workplace?
Choose any field of endeavor. Is it one in which a student may excel despite lacking proficiency in reading? Not likely.
Yet, in Iowa, one elementary student out of every four is not proficient in reading, and the recent trend has been in the wrong direction. (In the Dubuque district, the proficiency figure is slightly worse than the overall state average.)
This is not a call to scrap the idea of creating computer science elementary schools. However, it is a call for everyone — parents, educators and government officials — to not lose sight of the connection between reading and everything else in education and careers.
Some might view it as a boring, low-tech anachronism, but reading is every bit the basic skill in the 21st century as computers.
Fort Dodge Messenger. August 23, 2018.
Fort Dodge Regional Airport must remain state-of-the-art
Fort Dodge is fortunate to have a state-of-the art airport featuring direct commercial passenger flights to major airline hubs. Our airport also has first-rate facilities to serve the varied needs of private and corporate aviation.
The inescapable truth is that even those Fort Dodgers who never personally board a plane here have an enormous stake in the success of the Fort Dodge Regional Airport. The economic prospects of our town and the prosperity of neighboring communities are enhanced by the presence of commercial air service and a well-run, up-to-date airport.
Consequently, it’s very good news that on Aug. 14 the Iowa Department of Transportation approved two grants that will enable additional maintenance and improvements at the airport. Meanwhile, an important construction project at the airport is nearing completion. The air carrier apron is being replaced.
The Messenger applauds these enhancements to the airport. Keeping it topnotch is a crucial part of the strategy for keeping the regional economy booming.
Relatively few communities the size of Fort Dodge can boast of airport facilities that equal those at the Fort Dodge Regional Airport or as much commercial air service. Companies seeking to expand or relocate consider the quality of the airport and air service a community possesses to be important decision factors in choosing where to invest. Our airport gives Fort Dodge a major advantage in the competition for future corporate investment dollars.