Editorial Roundup: Iowa

Des Moines Register. March 18, 2021.

Editorial: Permanent courtroom cameras to livestream trials would add transparency in judicial system. The trial of a Des Moines Register reporter was live-streamed from Drake University and drew nearly 8,000 views from interested people all over the world

The charges against Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri and her acquittal have been well documented by media all over the world.

What should not be overlooked amid the coverage and commentary about the case: the value of the public being able to easily watch the three-day trial online in real time.

The livestreamed proceedings were a model for other courtrooms in Iowa and around the nation and were made possible by Drake Law School and its First Year Trial Practicum.

For one week each spring, all classes for first-year law students at Drake shift to an actual trial held on campus. The unique endeavor, now in its 24th year, allows students to witness every phase of a trial. They watch jury selection. They can talk with attorneys, judges and even jurors after a verdict.

In previous years, students have observed cases dealing with burglary, vehicular homicide, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, involuntary manslaughter, first-degree murder and other charges.

“The courtroom on Drake campus is a designated state courtroom, and the 5th Judicial District can have a trial there any time,” said Steve Foritano, director of the Trial Practicum. “We keep an eye out for a trial and may ask for it to be moved here. Judges recognize the value of the program for law students and are willing to participate.”

The value of this program was expanded from law students to all the rest of us when Drake selected the trial for State of Iowa v. Andrea Sahouri. The defendant was working for this newspaper covering a protest when she was arrested and charged with interference with official acts and failure to disperse.

In a typical year, Drake would livestream a trial to only a few students unable to attend in person. Some members of the public might show up on campus to watch.

This year the school opened access online free to anyone in the world to watch the trial. It had 7,700 unique views of the proceedings, including from the United Kingdom and Germany.

Those of us watching quickly realized this was not an episode of “Law & Order.”

It was better.

More of this transparency should come to courtrooms

We got a more in-depth education in court proceedings, learning about everything from objections to pretrial discovery to spoliation instructions. (In layman’s terms, spoliation refers to possible destruction of evidence that should have been preserved.)

Lawyers stumbled with questions. Witnesses fumbled with face shields. Police officers explained protocol for body cameras and squad car public address systems. Judge Lawrence McLellan, who presided over the trial, later told an editorial writer he forgot the cameras were there until he saw himself on the news.

Thanks to Drake, we watched the judicial branch in action.

More of this transparency should come to other courtrooms. Cameras have been allowed in Iowa courtrooms for more than 40 years, but are rarely used for extended trial coverage, typically only when local news media or courts-oriented cable channels dedicate resources to covering the most attention-grabbing portions of high-profile cases.

It’s time for that to change.

‘Public oversight of the judicial branch is important’

Cameras let voters gauge the performance of judges and weigh whether elected county prosecutors are justified in the decisions they make on which cases to pursue.

They allow friends and family members of the accused to witness trial proceedings from a distance. That is important for those who cannot afford to travel and pay for lodging during a hearing. And it’s especially important during an infectious disease pandemic.

Cameras ensure the frivolous prosecution of innocent defendants like Sahouri can be witnessed by interested people all over the world.

“People forget courts are the third branch of government, and they should have the same expectations about openness and transparency,” said Robert Pratt, senior U.S. District Judge of the Southern District of Iowa. “Public oversight of the judicial branch is important.” (Alas, the federal judiciary does not permit even still cameras or audio recording equipment at any time.)

Cameras in courtrooms make that public oversight easier.

Yes, some additional funding and staff would be required to ensure confidential conversations are muted, exhibits can be seen and jurors are not filmed, per Iowa’s courtroom rules.

But letting the light shine on our judicial system — a system that has incredible power over the freedom and future of the accused — would be worth the investment.

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Dubuque Telegraph Herald. March 17, 2021.

Editorial: Iowa lawmakers should regulate use of police body-cam data

Over the past decade, use of body-worn cameras has become increasingly common among law enforcement agencies across the country and around the tri-states. While City of Dubuque and Dubuque County law enforcement officials have been cooperative with Telegraph Herald requests for camera footage of specific incidents, that has not been the case statewide.

The TH joined the Iowa Newspaper Association and more than 50 Iowa newspaper reporters to query more than 300 law enforcement agencies and review their policies on body cameras and in-car dash cameras, as well as associated video. Collectively, the group reviewed more than 200 policies, which revealed broad inconsistencies, including that about half did not acknowledge police video as a public record.

It’s time Iowa lawmakers set a statewide policy governing the handling of body-camera video.

As it stands now, the rules covering body cameras vary widely from county to county. When cameras were first put into operation, they were touted as, in addition to aiding law enforcement, a way to hold officers accountable. But the vast disparities in policy make it difficult for everyday Iowans to get answers about issues of police behavior by reviewing police video.

About half of the Iowa police policies reviewed identified video as a public record, either by mentioning Iowa Code Chapter 22 or stating media would be allowed to view video in at least some circumstances. But many chiefs and sheriffs have declined to release video, even in closed cases and even when the person shown in the video wants it to be made public.

It would seem video of the event would qualify as the “immediate facts and circumstances” of an event, as the language in Chapter 22 on open records requires to be accessible to the public.

Having more and more law enforcement officers equipped with body-worn cameras is an overall benefit for everyone — except suspects (or, in rare cases, police) breaking the law. The cameras not only help document incidents, but they might also help diffuse an incident or act as a deterrent to keep an incident from even occurring. A belligerent citizen just might back off or tone it down, before a bad situation is made worse, if he or she knows that the scene is being recorded. Likewise, a police officer might think twice before using force — from pepper spray to physical action to even lethal force — when the officer’s camera is switched on.

But, like any tool, cameras have their limitations. Clearly stated laws, favoring openness and transparency, will enhance accountability and public trust in the technology and the officers using it.

This Sunshine Week, Iowa lawmakers should pledge to revisit the state’s open records law to create strong and clear policy around the use of body-worn cameras, as well as the retention and sharing of the video data the cameras record. To use these valuable tools for the good of law enforcement and citizens, a uniform approach is critical.

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Fort Dodge Messenger. March 18, 2021.

Editorial: STEM kits keep kids learning during break

Spring break is underway in the Fort Dodge Community School District, but that doesn’t mean the learning has to stop.

In fact, students in the afterschool program called Dodger Academy have a fun way to learn some things about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) thanks to some kits provided by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Two kinds of kits were distributed. Students in kindergarten through second grade got one called ”Scrumptious Stoplight.” It is all about picking, preparing and enjoying healthy foods. It includes a book featuring the always popular Berenstain Bears about junk food. The kit also includes instructions on making healthy snacks. Each kit includes a flexible cutting board and a plastic knife so that the kids can learn the technique of slicing fruits and vegetables without the risk of slicing little fingers.

Those in third through fifth grades received space-oriented kits called ”Astronaut Lander.” They contain the supplies that the kids can use to make their own version of a lunar lander. It also includes a book about NASA astronaut Leland D. Melvin.

Healthy snacks and space ships seem like sound ways get the attention of kids and nurture their creativity. The youngest children in the program will get some pointers about healthy eating from cartoon bears, while the older ones can be inspired by the story of a real astronaut hero.

These STEM kits were made possible by a partnership between the school district and ISU Extension and Outreach. That partnership actually started before these kits were made. This is a very beneficial relationship and we hope it continues.

We also hope the Dodger Academy students enjoy their STEM kits and learn a lot from them.

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