Des Moines police spokesperson Paul Parizek violated Iowa’s open records law by illegally withholding body camera footage relating to the violent arrest in October 2018 of a man named Brian Bell, Polk County District Court Judge Paul D. Scott ruled on Tuesday.
The footage was included in a request submitted to Parizek by Harvey Harrison, a lawyer and plaintiff in the case, after Bell was pepper-sprayed and tazed as he was being arrested. Police responded after receiving multiple reports from people who witnessed a man “behaving incoherently” at a gas station or later acting erratically in downtown Des Moines.
According to the judgement, officers Garth House and Kenneth Robinson, who “were on foot patrol in an off-duty capacity,” initially observed that Bell was “agitated and talking to himself” but not “acting aggressively.” However, the officers later decided to arrest Bell and alleged that he was acting “hostile and combative” in the vicinity of the Downtown Farmers’ Market. The two officers took Bell to the ground and then pepper-sprayed and tased him into submission. Bell requested and received medical care after the arrest.
Bell later pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and interference with official acts and received a sentence of one day in jail with credit for time served. On November 13, Harrison requested “all audio and video records related to the Bell incident” from Parizek. Parizek provided some information, but refused to provide body camera footage from House and Robinson.
On April 11, 2019, Harrison filed a petition with the court alleging that Parizek had knowingly violated Iowa Code chapter 22, Iowa’s open records law, requesting that Parizek be made to pay a fine, abstain from violating the law again for a year, and pay for all attorney fees and court costs.
Harrison argued that body camera recordings are “not investigative reports or, alternatively, the recordings are investigative reports, but the public interest in government transparency weighs in favor of disclosure,” Scott wrote in his judgement on Tuesday. Parizek, he summarized, argued that “the recordings are investigative reports and that the public interest in the secrecy of police investigations and the protection of witnesses precludes disclosure.”
Scott sided with Harrison, ruling that Parizek must make the body footage available, “refrain for one year from any future violations” of the open records law, pay damages in the amount of $100 to the city of Des Moines, and pay Harrison’s attorney fees and court costs. (This article initially reported that Parizek was ordered to pay $500, but this was apparently a typo in the judge’s ruling.)
While Scott ruled that Parizek failed to present a satisfactory legal argument for withholding the body camera footage, he also found that there was not sufficient evidence that the police spokesperson had knowingly violated the law. As a result, Parizek was ordered to pay a smaller amount in damages than he would have otherwise faced.
“Between this case and the recent case that was settled with the Polk County Sheriff regarding body camera video, I think law enforcement departments are realizing that they are obligated to turn over body camera records unless there are special circumstances necessitating confidentiality,” said Gina Messamer, an attorney with the Des Moines law firm Parrish Kruidenier who represented Harrison. The Informer also requested comment from the city of Des Moines on whether they plan to cover the amount Parizek has been ordered to pay, but did not immediately hear back. Messamer estimated that the legal fees would amount to “several thousand dollars.”
The judgement marks a victory for transparency and open records in Iowa, a state that, in the past, has seen remarkable attempts to indefinitely keep police body camera recordings from the public. In 2015, The Center for Public Integrity gave the state a D+ grade in government transparency and an F grade specifically in the category “judicial accountability,” citing a Burlington family’s inability to obtain body camera footage after a woman was fatally shot by a police officer who slipped and accidentally discharged his gun. In that case, the Iowa Public Information Board ruled in 2019 after a four-year legal battle that the footage could remain secret, even after an administrative law judge recommended that it be released.
Parizek himself declined to comment on the case when reached by the Informer. However, he provided a statement attributed to Police Chief Dana Wingert. “The decision to release records does not rest with Sergeant Parizek,” Wingert’s statement read. ”That is my responsibility. Although we may not necessarily agree with the court’s ruling, we will certainly abide by their decision.”