The city of Burlington has agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to the family of a woman who was fatally shot by a police officer who said he was defending himself from a dog. The officer remains employed with the Burlington Police Department.

Is that justice?

We don't know, and neither do the people of Burlington. That's because the court records from the civil lawsuit, including most of the video from the body camera of the officer, remain sealed and inaccessible to the public.

Autumn Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two children, was shot and killed in front of her toddler by Officer Jesse Hill in January 2015. Hill reported that he drew his gun to fend off an attacking dog, which bit him before he fired and accidentally hit Steele.

The Steele family's lawyer said during a court hearing that video from the officer's body camera doesn't back up his report that he was bitten before the shooting. But the city, police department, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Des Moines County attorney have refused to release more than 12 seconds of the video.

Randy Evans, executive director of the FOI Council, said the council expects to appear before a federal judge in coming weeks to make the case that the documents should be unsealed. "The council also is working to secure the release of the Burlington police body camera video of the shooting of Ms. Steele in the next few weeks," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that a compromise resolution can be reached soon."

Why should we care about this? The Steele family got paid, so what's the problem?

First of all, the taxpayers are ultimately the ones who pay. They pay for defending the city in a lawsuit. They pay for legal settlements, either directly or through the insurance premiums that cover the city's liability. They have a right to know exactly what sort of conduct they're paying to defend.

Our society gives police the authority to use deadly force to protect lives — including their own — and to uphold our laws. That authority needs careful oversight by our public officials and ultimately by the public they serve.

Sometimes, a police officer does everything right and bad things happen anyway. We need to protect those officers while trying to mitigate the harm and prevent it in the future. Sometimes, though, terrible mistakes are covered up to minimize liability. People who are abusing our trust need to be fired or voted out of office, but how will we know the difference if those same officials are allowed to hide evidence of their conduct?

"There are few activities government is involved in that raise more questions from the public than law officers killing an unarmed person," Evans said. "Video like that recorded when Autumn Steele was shot provides the public with a way to evaluate the actions that occurred moments before the tragedy and in the immediate aftermath."

Our court system makes decisions that affect every aspect of our lives: our freedom, our property and our fundamental rights as humans. But how can we have confidence in those decisions if all of the arguments and evidence are shrouded in secrecy?

This is why journalists fight for open meetings, open records and transparency in government decisions. This is why all Iowans should demand nothing less.

Des Moines Register

It's our deeply and long-held opinion that the public's interest is best served when the public's business is accessible to the public.

There are few, if any, issues of greater public interest than community safety and the conduct of its law enforcement officers. Thus, we've been more than troubled — outraged, actually — by government's obsession the past 3 1/2 years to keep the public in the dark over what we and other government-transparency advocates refer to as "the Burlington case."

Last week, when attorneys for Burlington and the Steele estate disclosed that they had reached an agreement on an out-of-court settlement in the federal suit, details of the agreement, including the public dollars that would be involved, weren't disclosed. Until everything is finalized, that is not surprising.

What was surprising is the lengths to which government officials have been trying to keep most details of the incident blocked from the public. Not quite half the many motions and legal briefs in the federal case have been sealed from public view.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has asked to intervene in the federal lawsuit. With the Steele family's consent, the organization seeks to argue for the documents to be unsealed.

In light of the legitimate and extreme public interest and concern when a law enforcement officer fires a weapon, as well as the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in the aftermath, the public should know what is going on. Dubious defenses and sealed documents to maintain secrecy should not be permitted.

The Burlington documents, including the video, should be made public.

Dubuque Telegraph Herald