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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Bodycam video destroyed by Sheriff’s Department

Freedom of information expert says attorney general should investigate

By staff reporter Maquoketa Sentinel-press

Jackson County Sheriff Russ Kettmann said Friday his department had destroyed body camera footage from a police call involving assistant county attorney Amanda Lassance even though it was the subject of an open records request filed under Iowa’s public records law.

The footage in question, recorded by Jackson County Deputy Chad Roeder’s body camera early in the morning April 6, captured some of the conversations that took place after police responded to an emergency call from the roadside along U.S. Highway 61 near Welton. The call began when Lassance’s boyfriend, Nick Shannon, called police and reported that he and Lassance were stopped along the highway, that they had been drinking, and that she had attacked him.

The Maquoketa Sentinel-Press filed its first formal request for body camera footage under Iowa Code Chapter 22 April 18. Kettmann responded to that request April 25 and offered to allow a reporter to view 5 minutes and 34 seconds of footage from Roeder’s body camera at the sheriff’s office with him and Chief Deputy Steve Schroeder present. Kettmann and Schroeder told the Sentinel-Press it could come back and view the footage whenever it liked. However, Kettmann did not provide the Sentinel-Press with a copy of the footage.

Kettmann told the Sentinel-Press that when Roeder reached the scene he “had it [his body camera] on when he got there, and turned it off when he was done,” but dashcam footage from a Clinton County squad car that the Sentinel-Press later obtained showed Roeder was on the scene 32 minutes longer than his body camera footage showed.

In a separate discrepancy, a Clinton County deputy’s report stated that Roeder said at the scene that he had talked to both Lassance and Shannon before Clinton County deputies arrived. The report contradicted an earlier statement from Roeder, who told the Sentinel-Press he did not speak with Lassance at the scene.

When asked about the contradiction, Roeder said his conversation with Lassance had been brief and did not include any meaningful dialogue. That conversation, however, did not appear on the body camera footage Kettmann and Schroeder showed the Sentinel-Press — the same footage Kettmann said his department destroyed May 1.

After acknowledging that he did talk to Lassance, Roeder said he didn’t know why she didn’t appear on the footage.

Roeder told the Sentinel-Press that when he responded to the call he pulled up behind Lassance’s vehicle and turned his camera on before walking over to her car and asking “What’s going on?” Roeder said his attention quickly turned to Shannon, who he said “came up out of the ditch on the other side of the road” as Roeder started to talk with Lassance.

Because of those discrepancies, the Sentinel-Press filed a second public records request May 28 for all sheriff’s department video taken at the scene and any other records stemming from the call.

In an in-person interview with the Sentinel-Press that same day, when a reporter told Kettmann that the newspaper would be filing another open records request for the body camera footage, Kettmann responded: “I have no problem giving it to you because that’s what we’ve got.”

But on Friday, when Kettmann called the Sentinel-Press in response to the second information request, he said Deputy Chad Gruver had deleted the file May 1.

“Every three months, any old footage or something the county attorney doesn’t need, that’s purged to make room on the hard drive,” Kettmann said.

On the date Kettmann said the video was deleted, it would have been 25 days old.

Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf, who had prosecutorial jurisdiction in the case, said Friday that the Clinton County case was officially closed. However, he said no one from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department contacted him to see if the case was closed before destroying the video.

On April 15, Lassance and Shannon pleaded guilty to open container citations, and both paid a fine of $335. Wolf said no additional charges will be filed.

According to a Clinton County deputy’s report, Lassance was not subjected to a sobriety test at the scene.

Newspaper files complaint

On Monday, the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board against the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department for destroying the video.

“There are reasons why Iowa has an open records statute,” Sentinel-Press Publisher Trevis Mayfield said. “The idea is that government belongs to the people, and the people are entitled to the truth about how government functions.”

Mayfield said the initial police call is no longer the key focus of the story.

“The fact that a county prosecutor admitted to drinking and driving and that police did not give her a sobriety test is newsworthy, but the story is far more than that now,” Mayfield said. “Now the story is about how local law enforcement, and especially its leadership, has handled the situation. Providing the public with murky information and destroying a public record that is part of a controversial story just doesn’t seem right.”

Mayfield said the newspaper is considering all of its options, including legal action, related to the destruction of the video.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said Jackson County officials’ handling of the case has been troubling from the beginning on multiple levels, and that the people of Jackson County should be disappointed in their government officials.

“The public deserves to know whether the prosecutor who admitted she had been drinking and driving was treated differently from how other people not in law enforcement would be treated under similar circumstances. 

“I am extremely troubled that the sheriff would not have taken steps to preserve the video the Maquoketa Sentinel-Press has been seeking. That video might have answered some of the questions being asked about how this incident was handled,” Evans said.

“Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller should step in and investigate whether the staff of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office disregarded department policies and deliberately destroyed the videos to cover up what increasingly appears to be the preferential treatment this prosecutor received,” he added.

Also on Monday, the Sentinel-Press filed a new open records request with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department seeking its policies for body camera and dashcam usage and for how it maintains and disposes of video and audio recordings made during the course of its work.

-Sentinel-Press staffers Kelly Gerlach, Nick Joos, Nancy Mayfield and Trevis Mayfield contributed to this report.

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