Protesters in Burlington expressed their outrage on June 16 for the lack of “consequences, accountability or transparency” for the fatal police shooting of 34-year-old Autumn Steele in January.
The controversy started when Burlington Police Officer Jesse Hill responded to a domestic disturbance call involving a dispute between Autumn Steele and her husband Gabriel at their South Garfield Avenue home on the morning of January 6.
During Hill’s investigation, the Steele family dog, a German Shepard named Sammy, jumped on the officer and allegedly bit him. He initially drew his firearm to shoot the dog, but his weapon discharged and fired two shots as he slipped and fell to the ground. One bullet entered Steele’s chest, which was the fatal shot according to the autopsy report.
The Des Moines Register reports that “[Steele] was also struck in her right arm, and a bullet grazed the dog.”
Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers dropped all criminal charges against Hill on February 27, concluding that his actions were “reasonable under the circumstances to protect himself from injury.” Hill was not formally disciplined and remains on the force.
Steele is survived by her family, including her husband, three children and her mother Gina Colbert, who travelled from her residence in Columbus, Georgia to attend the rally on Tuesday.
Supporters of “Justice for Autumn Steele” rallied at the southeast corner of the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and Agency Street, carrying signs with slogans stating, “One Bullet Changed A Life,” “Justice For Autumn” and “Rest in Peace Autumn.”
The rally was hosted by Marsha Soto of Pekin, Illinois and Kyle Sonderegger of Burlington. They received support from Cop Block, a grassroots organization that describes itself as “a decentralized project supported by a diverse group of individuals united by their shared goal of police accountability.” This was the fourth event in a series of protests that have been organized throughout the year.
Critics argue that Beavers ignored certain conditions of involuntary Misdemeanor and Manslaughter that reads, in part, “unintentionally causes of death of another person by the commission of an act in a manner likely to cause death or serious injury.”
According to a statement issued by attorney Adam Klein of Atlanta, Georgia, “Ms. Beavers trims the Iowa involuntary manslaughter statute, leaving the portion which most clearly applies to these facts on the cutting-room floor.”
Citing Iowa Code 724.30, Reckless Use of a Firearm, which punishes a person “who intentionally discharges a firearm in a reckless manner,” a potential Class ‘C’ felony charge, Klein adds, “Ms. Beavers ignores any number of non-homicide crimes which she absolutely could have charged [Hill].”
Additionally, critics challenged the notion that the dog posed a serious threat to the officer.
The Burlington Animal Hearing Board ruled unanimously that Steele’s dog was not dangerous and allowed the pet to be returned to the family during a meeting on February 25. The decision was made after the board members heard testimony from Steele’s husband, her mother and a neighbor who witnessed the events on the morning of the shooting.
Burlington Police Chief Doug Beaird said that officers received little training on how to deal with dogs and other animals while on duty. He later announced that officers would be required to review Department of Justice training videos dealing with animal encounters to help prevent such events from happening again.
The Burlington police have their supporters as well. There have been counter-rallies in support of Hill and the Burlington Police. The editorial staff of The Hawk Eye supported Beavers’ decision in an editorial. Burlington businessman Sam Jennison has been circulating a public affirmation condemning what he viewed were irresponsible actions on behalf of the protesters, which has been signed by numerous community leaders.
Similar protests are expected to take place in the near future.