This originally appeared in The Burlington Hawk Eye on Sept. 16.
âIâm (expletive deleted) going to prison, Tim,â said officer Jesse Hill as he stood over the motionless body of Autumn Steele.
His gun in the snow, an unarmed mother dying at his feet, Hill knew he was in trouble.
Three years later, new documents and video released under protest by Burlington officials on the order of a federal judge may help explain the cityâs three-year campaign to cover up the fatal mistakes leading up to Steeleâs death.
Unlike other Iowa cities that routinely release such information to the public, Burlington fought and taxpayers paid for a long and costly battle to avoid a full accounting of what happened on that snowy January morning.
For years, police officials have blamed her accidental killing on an attack by the Steele familyâs collie/German shepherd mix, Sammy, and even attempted unsuccessfully to have the dog declared vicious and euthanized.
But newly released records show no attack by Sammy the dog ever penetrated Hillâs clothing, and Hill had what could most charitably be described as a minor abrasion on one leg that required no treatment â not even a Band-Aid.
Were it not circled in pen on a photographic exhibit, most people would be unable to identify any injury whatsoever.
One eyewitness interviewed by an officer with a body camera said âit looked like (the dog) was trying to play;â another said it âlooked no different than if my dog jumped on somebody;â and yet another said she thought Autumn Steele must have had a weapon because the dog wasnât doing anything or being aggressive.
None of these eyewitness statements were included in the investigating officerâs report, according to court filings. Nor was Hillâs admission he could be âgoing to jailâ included in any police report.
Previously sealed court testimony reveals had Hill followed U.S. Department of Justice training available at the time, he never would have pulled out his gun in the first place.
âOnly after a dog has attacked, and the attack continues for several seconds with the dog shaking the officer or individual, is lethal force an appropriate response to the threat of serious bodily injury,â according to U.S. Department of Justice training.
In fact, while Burlington officials were telling the public Hill had done nothing wrong, those same officials were hurriedly arranging multiple rounds of training that essentially directed Burlingtonâs police officers to avoid pulling guns on dogs.
According to the training program, âthere is no documented case of a police officer dying as the result of a dog-bite related injury,â and âmore people are killed by lightning every year than dog bites.â
Thatâs why officers facing aggressive dogs are now asked to instead consider the use of Tasers, batons or pepper spray. The departmentâs training even suggests using flashlights or an arm to fend off a canine. Anything but a gun.
But if Hill was somehow forced to use a gun, and if the dog was actually vicious, then basic firearms training should have come into play.
As taught by the National Rifle Association, the Boy Scouts of America and, we would hope, police departments around the country, a key pillar of gun safety is to know your target and what is beyond, and never point your gun at something you do not intend to shoot.
Yet in his haste, he shot both Sammy the dog and Autumn Steele, who was standing within touching distance of her husband, Gabriel Steele, and their 3-year-old child.
Hill fired once while slipping, then took another shot in the familyâs direction after having fallen to the ground, according to his own testimony.
Was this not reckless?
Perhaps when Hill blurted out that he was âgoing to prison,â he was thinking about Iowa law, which defines involuntary manslaughter as âwhen the person unintentionally causes the death of another person by the commission of an act in a manner likely to cause death or serious injury,â according to court filings.
It wasnât long, however, before he had a different tune, testifying that âif the same factual circumstances arose again (he) would conduct (himself) in the same manner.â
If Hillâs testimony can be believed, it appears safe to assume the Burlington Police Departmentâs training was either ineffective or ignored.
To be sure, we know many fine police officers in Burlington, and the vast majority of their public interactions donât end with an innocent mother dying in the snow as her 3-year-old looks on.
But itâs impossible not to ask questions when evidence that was hidden at great cost fails to support a narrative that was so forcefully pushed by those whose salaries we pay.
Incidents like the Autumn Steele shooting and its lengthy aftermath serve to remind us exactly why we must have sunshine rather than secrecy when lives are at stake.
As the city suggested in sealed arguments, âThe best evidence of what was stated, when it was stated, and by whom on Officer Merrymanâs body camera recording is the audio and video footage itself.â
We couldnât agree more.
We only wish it hadnât taken three years, untold dollars in legal fees and a federal order to bring closure to the Steele family and to Burlingtonâs citizens.