Iowa Newsrooms Unite To Produce Investigative Series

Video can change the course of history.

Americans witnessed that fact with the George Floyd trial and the murder conviction of a police officer in Minneapolis.

Now we’re seeing the use of body cameras by police as ripe for closer examination, especially whether the public has adequate access to the videos.

The Iowa Newspaper Association and its member newsrooms are doing just that.

The Association helped launch a statewide project to examine police video rules, regulations and related policies. The result is an investigative series that already is sparking debate about the public’s right to know, privacy, and transparency in policing.

Two parts have been published. A third is ahead.

The unusual series shows the important role an association can play as an orchestrator of distinctive projects and as a master collaborator that unites its newspapers for a higher purpose.

It also helps to have engaged members.

“We have a very active government relations committee and the idea came from a member on that committee,” said Susan Patterson Plank, Iowa Newspaper Association executive director. “A small group was put together for planning purposes and then a smaller group was pulled to actually do writing. The core team meets weekly.”

As part of the project, more than 50 journalists from 30 different newspapers in Iowa have requested copies of body-camera policies from local police departments, sheriffs’ offices and other law enforcement agencies. The Iowa Press Association received a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to help pay for the cost of filing public records requests, resources such as mentoring, and in some cases, legal review of stories.

Body-camera footage was obtained from more than 220 law enforcement agencies across Iowa. The journalists found that while many police departments shared videos when asked, others declined to make their videos public.

The first installment in January highlighted that “a decade after law enforcement agencies in Iowa started using body cameras, there are a widely divergent and unregulated system of rules and policies in place, according to a review of more than 200 policies,” the Association reported in its Bulletin newsletter.

A sample of newspapers publishing the first installment of the InFocus series.

The story confirmed disparities in video use, retention and public release, along with examples of police videos that have been made available through the efforts of Iowa newspapers and the public.

“Those disparities can endanger the ability of everyday Iowans to answer questions about a family member’s death or prove their innocence,” the Association added.

A second installment in late April explored “how Iowa law enforcement agencies balance accountability with privacy of people show in police recordings,” the Bulletin reported. “There are legitimate questions about how videos should be redacted to protect privacy, but there also are cases of law enforcement agencies using privacy as a red herring to keep videos secret.”

The Des Moines Register added to the Part II publication with a guest column from Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “Advocates for government accountability make the case that the open records law already requires police to release the immediate facts and circumstances of every crime or incident officers respond to, and videos recorded at the time of such incidents provide an unaltered accounting of those circumstances,” Evans wrote.

The series is front-page news in Iowa.

“While these advocates and some law officials disagree over the interpretation of the open records law, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled two years ago that the need for confidentiality of police investigative materials must be balanced against the need for transparency in important circumstances,” Evans added. “This is a conclusion we all should agree on.”

In an interview with the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Erin Jordan, one of the series coordinators, said the project shows that “local newspapers are on the front lines of pushing for police accountability.”

“Travis Mayfield, who is publisher of the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press and is on the INA government relations committee, wanted Iowa newspapers to do this series because his paper struggled to get video of a July 2019 incident when a 22-year-old man died after being Tasered by police,” said Jordan, an investigative reporter at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “Doing a statewide story on his own would have been tough, but joining forces with the INA and other news outlets made it possible.”

In its newsletters, the Association saluted the project team and the newspapers publishing the “InFocus” series, which is being “made available without charge to all INA members.”

Jordan said the support from the Iowa Newspaper Association and Fund for Investigative Journalism “feels kind of like a ‘we got you’ that can help motivate small newsrooms to do great work.”

–Tom Silvestri

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