IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Relatives of a 34-year-old mother who was mistakenly killed by an Iowa police officer are accusing city and state officials of unfairly withholding evidence gathered during the investigation into her death.
Autumn Steele's relatives said they are outraged that a lawyer for the city of Burlington and its insurer recently abandoned negotiations aimed at allowing them to access the state's investigation materials. They say they want more answers about Steele's Jan. 6 death, which happened when a rookie Burlington officer responding to a domestic disturbance tried to shoot the family's dog but shot Steele in the chest instead.
A prosecutor determined that the shooting was justified because the dog attacked the officer, who has since returned to work without having been disciplined. But authorities have withheld Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation reports documenting the agency's review of the shooting.
Steele's mother, Gina Colbert of Columbus, Georgia, recently traveled to Iowa to demand the "full and unconditional release" of the records, saying authorities were defying the law.
"Her family and the people of Burlington deserve to know the truth," Colbert said during a Saturday rally in Burlington.
Adam Klein, an Atlanta lawyer for one of Steele's two young sons, said authorities were showing "callous disregard for good people who deserve better."
DCI spokesman Alex Murphy said the records were appropriately withheld, arguing state law allows police reports to remain confidential even after an investigation is concluded.
Jesse Hill, a patrol officer for less than one year, responded to a disturbance in which Autumn Steele was screaming and hitting her husband, Gabriel Steele, outside their home while their 4-year-old son was present. Steele had spent the prior night in jail after being arrested for allegedly assaulting her husband.
Authorities released a 12-second video from Hill's body camera that shows the officer getting out of his car, telling the Steeles to quit fighting, and firing two gunshots without warning after a growling dog is heard. The clip ends after Hill apparently falls backward into snow. Investigators said the dog, a Collie/German Shepherd mix named Sammy, jumped on Hill's back and bit his thigh, causing injuries that required treatment. The dog's actions aren't clear in the video.
Based on the clip, lawyers for Steele's relatives say the officer was too quick to use deadly force. The Steeles were unarmed, and the shooting happened in daylight.
County prosecutor Amy Beavers announced Feb. 27 that Hill wouldn't be charged and was acting in self-defense. One shot grazed the dog, which survived. Hill accidentally fired the second as he fell, Beavers found.
After Beavers' decision, Klein filed an open records request seeking DCI's evidence, which would likely include additional body and car camera videos, witness statements, photos and forensic reports. The agency objected, citing an exemption in which "peace officers' investigative reports" can be kept confidential. Klein contends they should be public since the investigation is complete.
An assistant attorney general later told Klein the DCI would be receptive to releasing files to the city and Steele's family if they submitted a joint request, Klein said.
Martha Shaff, a lawyer representing Burlington and its insurance carrier, told Klein in a March 25 email that her clients wanted a confidentiality agreement "that the information not be divulged to anyone" outside the case. Klein said Steele's relatives reluctantly agreed to that concept and he started negotiating its wording. Then Shaff reversed course April 27, saying her clients were concerned about the ability to enforce the confidentiality agreement and won't agree to a release until a judge decides who can access the records.
Klein said he would file a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board seeking release of the records as early as Friday.
"This surely shows there is something they don't want us to see," said attorney Mark Shelnutt, who represents Colbert. "It's going to come out one way or another. The days of trying to cover up killings and keep the truth from ever seeing the light of day are hopefully over."