By Randy Evans
The increasing secrecy by Iowa law enforcement and their lawyers about identifying people by name raises important questions underlying public confidence in the critical work of first-responders.
The question deals with whether police can or should refuse to identify persons involved in incidents and crimes. Despite Iowa’s history of openness about crimes and accidents, with increasing frequency public officials refuse to provide names of people who end up in these events, whether as victims or perpetrators.
A few examples illustrate this issue:
Des Moines police officers encountered a tense standoff early the morning after Christmas in 2022. The incident involved a 16-year-old boy with a handgun. The events unfolded inside the apartment where his grandmother lived. His mother and stepfather lived a couple of doors away.
In the five minutes after officers arrived, having been summoned by the stepfather, officers pleaded 70 times with the teen to put down the gun, according to a report from the Iowa attorney general’s office. The standoff ended when the youth raised the gun toward officers, resulting in them firing 14 shots that struck him in the head and torso.
The attorney general’s report identified the dead boy only by his initials, T.J.
Des Moines city attorneys ordered police not to make public their body camera video from the standoff or the teen’s name, despite the willingness of officials to do so. The lawyers claimed releasing the name and video would violate Iowa’s juvenile justice law because the teen had not been charged with any crime in connection with the standoff. Of course, authorities seldom prosecute the dead.
Keep this supposed legal analysis in mind and think back to the mass shootings at Perry High School. Within hours of the tragedy, law officers released the name of Dylan Butler, 17, the student who fatally shot one student and injured four other students and three school employees before he took his own life.
The day after the shootings, officials made public the name of Ahmir Jolliff, 11, a sixth-grader who died from gunshot wounds. This week, high school principal Dan Marburger, 56, hailed as a hero for protecting students, died from his wounds.
No one asserted Perry police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation violated any statute by making public the shooter’s name or the name of the sixth-grader who was killed. However, officials have not made public the names of any of the survivors who were injured.
It is nonsense to believe officials acted improperly or against public interest in identifying the shooter or in naming the sixth-grader or principal. For anyone to assert otherwise makes a mockery of government transparency and implies Iowans are so detached from their communities they do not want to know who was involved in this tragedy.
But think back to last May and news of a tragic accident in Iowa City, when a motor vehicle struck and fatally injured an Iowa National Guard soldier. Corey Hite of Cedar Rapids was jogging near West High School when the vehicle hit him.
Iowa City police refused for more than a month to confirm the identity of the driver — the 16-year-old son of University of Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery — because he is a juvenile and had not charged with any legal infraction then. (The younger McCaffery was convicted of a failure to yield charge and was fined $1,000.)
Then, go back to the weekend before the Iowa City accident, when two classmates of the young McCaffery were involved in what state troopers said was a street race. The two teens, both 17, failed to heed a stop sign and collided with a car traveling through the intersection. The car’s driver, Jennifer Russell, 22, of Waterloo, died a short time later.
The names of the two street racers and a passenger in one of their cars were released the next day by the Iowa State Patrol.
Cases where police withhold names continue to increase, with the secrecy maintained for inexplicable reasons. Some cases involve fatal traffic accidents. Others involve people shot by police. Some involve people who died in a drowning or similar tragedy.
All these incidents raise important questions: Why are some people’s names made public, while other people’s names are not?
The Legislature enacted a law more than 40 years ago requiring law enforcement agencies to release the date, time, specific location and what the law calls the “immediate facts and circumstances” about a crime or other incident to which police are sent.
A 1990 legal opinion from the Iowa attorney general reminds government officials there is a presumption of disclosure of these facts “except in those unusual circumstances where disclosure would plainly and seriously jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the safety of an individual.”
The opinion stated victim names are one of the “immediate facts” covered by the disclosure requirement.
The lack of consistency from town to town, county to county and within state government raises the specter of favoritism. This inconsistency leads to suspicion young McCaffery’s case received special treatment because of his famous father — something the two street-racers did not receive because their families are not well known. Indeed, some in Iowa City speculate the racers got different treatment because they are black.
Keeping the actions of government employees transparent and open to scrutiny is vital to maintaining public trust and confidence in our government institutions. Accountability requires an informed public that obtains reliable information from public officials, rather than relying on rumor, gossip and theories woven on social media.
Another important element to releasing victim names often gets overlooked. Iowans have seen an outpouring of emotional and financial support that has warmed the hearts and tempered the pain of the victims in the Perry school tragedy, in the death of the Iowa National Guard sergeant in Iowa City, and in the recent drowning of a 9-year-old boy in a pond in Waukee (where police refused to identify him).
All of this underscores why access to accurate information from law enforcement is so important. It lies at the heart of being a community of caring and informed neighbors.
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. This column can be published by any IMA member. There is no charge to print the column.