IOWA — The Iowa Supreme Court in a unanimous decision in late September ordered state police officials to give the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper copies of a special agent’s investigatory report into allegations of excessive police force in an arrest by a Burlington police officer.
Steve Sands, then a Hawk Eye reporter, requested the report in June 1991 as a part of series on local perspectives on police brutality in reaction to videotapes of the Rodney King beatings in Los Angeles that had been airing on the nightly news.
The local police chief had called for a state investigation of the arrest by Swore in response to Sands’ reporting.
Based on the report, prepared by the Division of Criminal Investigation in 1991, the Burlington police chief and the district attorney decided not to bring disciplinary action or criminal charges against Officer Michael Swore for an arrest he made in 1989. But a jury in December 1992 awarded the arrested man civil damages from Swore and from the city, finding Swore had used excessive force.
The publisher of the Hawk Eye had argued before the state’s high court that the public deserved to see the report to determine why the official findings and the jury verdict differed.
Any public harm from disclosure is far outweighed by the public harm accruing from nondisclosure of the report, the Supreme Court said.
The court also noted that disclosure would not harm an ongoing investigation. Officials had decided not to act against Swore and had closed the case. On the other hand, the court said, there is great public concern and interest when police brutality is alleged. That concern was piqued here by the events in Los Angeles and by the complaint filed against Swore, it said.
After the jury verdict, the police chief gave the newspaper names of persons interviewed in the investigation.
However, the court said that even though the newspaper could have interviewed the same people, it could not assess the officials’ action without seeing the report itself.
The high court affirmed a decision of the Des Moines County District Court in Burlington.
(Hawk Eye v. Jackson; Media Counsel: Gene Krekel, Burlington)
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