Mistakes. We all make them, right?
“To err is human...," it has long been said. Screwing up is practically baked into our DNA.
Some of our mistakes are small, like calling a person by the wrong name five minutes after first being introduced. Some bigger, like driving after a do-it-yourself oil change and forgetting to tighten the drain plug, leading to a leak and a seized engine. And others are, life-altering. Or life-ending.
Such were the events on the morning of Jan. 6, 2015, near the corner of Market and Garfield streets in Burlington.
The word accident has been liberally applied in describing the tragic shooting death that day of Autumn Steele at the hands of Burlington Police officer Jesse Hill. The better word would be mistake.
Mistake. And a series of them, by practically everyone involved.
Steele made a mistake by violating a court order that put her in a place where she shouldn’t have been, leading to her fatal interaction with Hill.
Hill made a mistake by charging unaided into a volatile scene involving an angry woman, her husband, a little boy and a dog. He made a mistake in being too quick to draw his weapon when other options were available. He made a mistake in his handling of that weapon, firing two errant shots while falling in snow and ice.
The Burlington Police Department was mistaken, too, having lost sight of a gap in its officer training program on interactions with dogs.
And the state of Iowa was, and continues to be, mistaken in its application of open records laws that keep such mistakes from public scrutiny.
So what do we do when we make a mistake?
If we’re conscientious, we own up to it, do what we can to fix it and try our best not to do it again.
“To err is human,” Alexander Pope, the 18th century English poet, famously wrote in an essay he published in 1711, “to forgive divine.”
But to be deserving of forgiveness for our mistakes, we first must first acknowledge when we’ve done wrong. And then learn from our mistakes, and endeavor not to repeat them.
Autumn Steele won’t get that chance, of course. Her opportunity to ask and offer forgiveness ended that January day in 2015. But for Hill, the Burlington Police Department and the state of Iowa, the opportunity to do and be better continues.
Honorable though it may be even now, saying “I’m sorry” won’t fix anything, or spare anybody the grief and pain of the past nearly four years. But Hill, who has remained on the job (and now is, by several accounts, well-liked by the students at Burlington High School, which he serves as school resource officer), can use the experience to help him be the best officer he is capable of being for so long as his career should last.
The police department was quick to see its mistake in its training program and address it. It must maintain its vigilance to prevent there from ever being another Autumn Steele.
As for the state of Iowa? Well, it may be onto something with the welcome, albeit late-arriving, proposal by the Iowa Public Information Board to seek legislation addressing the problem of secrecy in policing.
As our reporting today shows, Iowa is one of a handful of states that doesn’t mandate release of video and other records following violent interactions between police and public, or that allows investigations to be held perpetually confidential, even after they are completed.
The IPIB proposal would address some of that. It could go further, but it’s a start.
How unfortunate it took three years and the intervention of a U.S. District Court judge in the Steele family’s wrongful death lawsuit, to see how far outweighed the official interest in secrecy was by the public interest in openness.
As a people, our mistake is to be too accepting of secrecy in government. With our apologies to those whose feathers that might ruffle, it’s a mistake we look forward to seeing rectified.
The Hawk Eye