Gina Colbert of Columbus, Ga., was honored on Sept. 26 by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council with its Friend of the First Amendment Award. The award has been given annually since 2001 to people who have been effective advocates for open and accountable government.
Colbert began her advocacy on the morning of Jan. 6, 2015, when her daughter, Autumn Steele, 34, was shot to death by a Burlington police officer outside the home she shared with her husband and young son.
The officer said he was trying to shoot the Steeles’ dog as it came at the group. But Steele was struck, instead.
The officer was cleared of any criminal charges, but the city paid $2 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit. The city continues to fight the broad issue of whether the public should be able to see the body camera video from law officers’ cameras.
Here are remarks Colbert made in accepting the FOI award:
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Thank you for this recognition. We got this far thanks to the hard work of so many people, and for that I will always be grateful.
My daughter Autumn was shot and killed in her front yard by a Burlington police officer named Jesse Hill almost five years ago.
Every day since then has been a bitter fight to bring the truth about her death to light. As I look back over those years, it strikes me that the biggest constant has been fear.
Jesse Hill was afraid — afraid of a barking dog. Instead of relying on his oath or his training, he succumbed to that fear. He drew his gun, pointed it at the source of his fear, and started shooting. He paid no mind to the three people, including my 3-year-old grandson, who were in his line of fire. He pulled the trigger because he was afraid, and he killed my daughter.
The Burlington Police Department was afraid — afraid of what might happen to one of their own, and afraid of what the truth would reveal about them. After all, they had hired Jesse Hill and trained him, put a badge on his chest and a gun in his hand. They were afraid that the public they had sworn to protect would learn that one of their officers would put innocent lives in danger without a second thought — because he was afraid of a dog.
They succumbed to their fear. When another officer arrived on the scene, the first words out of his mouth were, “It was an accident.” Which is a strange thing to say, since he didn’t see the shooting. He wasn’t there yet. “It was an accident” was not what he saw — it was the story they needed to tell.
As it turns out, when you control all the evidence and the police narrative, it’s actually not all that hard to tell whatever kind of story you want. A barking dog becomes a vicious attack. Jesse Hill wasn’t just afraid — he was bitten. He was defending his life. Yet Hill was never bitten. And you give the public just enough to support your story and lock the rest away. And as your story is retold, and retold, and retold, it hardens in the public’s mind. But the time the whole truth comes out, if it ever does, it’s too late to make much difference.
The Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers was afraid. Afraid to prosecute one of her own officers, but also afraid to explain why she wouldn’t. Iowa law says that a person commits manslaughter when he “unintentionally causes the death of another person by the commission of an act in a manner likely to cause death or serious injury.”
I don’t know how anyone could argue that pulling a trigger with three people in your line of fire is not “likely to cause death or serious injury.” I do know that Amy Beavers didn’t even try. Instead, when she released her decision not to prosecute Jesse Hill, she just cut that sentence right out of the law.
And so it goes. The Iowa Public Information Board was afraid to rock the boat. The attorney general’s office was afraid to stand up for Iowans instead of the police. Afraid of the truth. Afraid of the consequences of their actions.
Again and against and again, we have hoped and prayed for those in power to confront their fears instead of bending to them. Again and again they have failed us. And they will continue to fail us so long as we let them. Because they are afraid.
Which is why it is so important that we are here together today. We must remind them every day that we are not afraid. And we’re not done, either.
Fear can only conquer truth if we let it.