Earlier this year, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council wrote to the top administrators of the Iowa State Patrol and Iowa Department of Public Safety concerning the secrecy surrounding an incident last summer in which a state trooper was involved in the arrest of a man after a police chase.
The State Patrol had kept the trooper’s name secret and had offered no explanation of how the subject of the pursuit suffered “visible injuries” when the trooper drew his rifle.
After receiving the FOI Council’s letter and after a Des Moines editorial on the secrecy, the State Patrol identified the trooper as Jeremy Probasco. The State Patrol offered no explanation for identifying the trooper six months after the incident after repeatedly refusing to release his name.
You can read the FOI Council’s letter here. IaStatePatrol.2016
On Friday, the FOI Council received a letter from Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan in which she again declined to elaborate on the nature of the force that Trooper Probasco used that resulted in injury to the other driver, Shanne Arre of LeMars.
Ryan said law enforcement agencies have an obligation to ensure that a defendant in a criminal trial receives a fair trial. “As law enforcement officials, we may not share the defendant’s view of the facts in a criminal case, but we do share the goal of providing a fair trial and seeking truth and justice,” Ryan wrote in her letter.
Ryan continued: “This recent public records request asks about use of force, which is a topic of great public concern right now. It is also a topic of great interest to all of us in law enforcement.”
Concerning the arrest of Arre and the actions of Trooper Probasco, Ryan wrote: “The most recent public records requests are for information regarding use of force in the apprehension of a suspect after a pursuit. The information necessarily would involve either the investigative information (which is not an open record, other than the basic facts and circumstances of the case), or confidential personnel matters.”
Iowa FOI Council Executive Director Randy Evans said Ryan’s interest in a fair trial for Shanne Arre is understandable. A fair trial is one of the hallmarks of the American judicial system.
But Evans said Ryan’s position on the dash camera video of the pursuit and apprehension of Arre is troubling because the people of Iowa are unable to judge whether the actions of the trooper during the arrest were appropriate or involved the use of excessive or unnecessary force.
Ryan believes the video is a confidential law enforcement investigative record that can be kept secret under Iowa’s open records law.
Ryan acknowledges that the video would become public if it is introduced into evidence at Arre’s trial in February. But if there is a plea bargain agreement and Arre does not stand trial, or if the video is not shown during a trial, Ryan believes the video can remain confidential.
Ryan also believes the video constitutes a confidential part of a personnel file because it apparently shows the actions of Trooper Probasco.
Evans said the public’s trust in the actions of law officers across the United States has been eroded by instances when excessive force is used by officers during encounters with people. That public trust cannot be rebuilt if law enforcement agencies like the Iowa State Patrol shroud their officers’ actions in secrecy, he said.
Evans noted that Ryan said in her letter that when there is no evidence a trooper committed a criminal offense when using force against a person during an arrest, there would be an internal investigation by the Department of Public Safety’s Professional Standards Bureau. Ryan said in her letter, “The investigation is a personnel matter that is considered confidential and fits within a public records exception. … We are committed to showing respect to our employees’ interest in maintaining the confidentiality of personnel information.”
Evans said: “Commissioner Ryan’s position pretty well keeps the people of Iowa from ever being permitted to judge for themselves whether a trooper who works for the public used inappropriate force, or engaged in unwarranted behavior, during an arrest. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council believes that such a position in unacceptable.”