(Editor's note: This is the first in a six-part series, "Police Accountability in Iowa," examining Iowa's approach to killings by law enforcement officers, its impact on families, and their fight to find accountability.)
Sawaan Harris's heart pounded as she realized the police officer who stopped at the screening station she was manning at Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center was the man who had fatally shot the father of her twin sons.
Harris stepped outside to vape and video chat with her sons, one of whom is named after his father, when the officer emerged from the building.
She could not stop the words from escaping her lips: "Justice for MarQuis."
The encounter on that September day, confirmed by Burlington Police Chief Marc Denney, escalated briefly, with more words from Harris, according to Denney, and the officer demanding Harris's name while walking toward her, according to Harris. It ended with Harris's supervisor being notified.
Harris lost her job the next day. Christopher "Chip" Chiprez, the man responsible for the Oct. 1, 2017, death of MarQuis "Bubba" Jones, continues to work patrol for the Burlington Police Department.
Jones was not armed at the time Chiprez's bullet tore through his chest. The gun he had been carrying during the foot chase that began with a traffic stop was recovered about 50 yards away from him, in the yard he was running through when Chiprez ordered him to drop it, footage taken by Chiprez's body camera showed.
Jones did not fire his weapon, nor did he aim it at Joshua Riffel, whom Chiprez was training at the time of the fatal encounter, according to the statement of facts written by Scott Brown, an assistant Iowa state attorney general. The report states that, during the pursuit, Riffel observed Jones attempt to point the gun toward Riffel’s body when Riffel attempted to take it from him.
Both officers were cleared of any wrongdoing by the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
"MarQuis Jones left Officer Chiprez no other alternative than to shoot under the circumstances,” Brown wrote in his seven-page report released Oct. 12, 2017. "The Iowa Attorney General’s Office considers the officer involved investigation closed. No criminal charges are justified or warranted against Officer Chiprez or Officer Riffel.”
Without criminal charges, Iowa families conduct own investigations
It's a familiar story for families who have lost loved ones during encounters with law enforcement officers in Iowa. A review of documents by the Associated Press found the Iowa Attorney General's Office has not convicted an officer of improper use of force since at least 2004, the earliest such data that is available.
When killings by law enforcement officers are deemed non-criminal or justified, as was the case with Jones, the only legal recourse left to survivors of those victims are civil lawsuits unless new evidence is discovered.
Five such suits have been filed in Iowa for wrongful death at the hands of law enforcement officers since 2015. The Hawk Eye interviewed the families involved in each. They shared their frustration with access to police records and a belief that their loved ones' deaths have been unjustly overlooked by an unbalanced justice system. Those feelings have grown stronger since witnessing the nation's response to the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd.
Floyd died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes. His death spurred worldwide protests against police brutality, and Chauvin subsequently was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Two of the Iowa lawsuits have been settled and three are pending.
How killings by law enforcement officers are investigated in Iowa
Drew Edwards died of a heart attack June 15, 2019, at age 22 after being Tased six times by Maquoketa Police officer Mike Owen and being sat on by Owen and another law enforcement officer for more than 12 minutes.
"I really wanted criminal charges more than anything in the world," Edwards' sister, Tricia Steines, told The Hawk Eye in August from inside her Bellevue home about 20 miles east of Maquoketa. "I want them to be held accountable for what they did. ... They didn't even get suspended, not even for a day. Absolutely nothing happened to those officers."
In September 2020, the city of Maquoketa and Jackson County paid a combined sum of $4.5 million to Steines and her family. The payout was the result of a settlement reached in a lawsuit filed by Edwards' estate in response to Edwards' death and the absence of charges or discipline against the officers. Also included in the settlement was an agreement by the police department to provide additional training for its officers.
The other women who have filed suit are:
Altovese Williams, Jones' mother;
Gina Colbert, the mother of Autumn Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two who was fatally shot by Burlington Police officer Jesse Hill on Jan. 6, 2015;
Krystal Wagner, the mother of Shane Jensen, a 19-year-old who was fatally shot by Iowa Department of Natural Resources conservation officer William Spece on Nov. 11, 2017, after firing a gun in the air and holding it to his own head; and
Patty Thorington, the mother of Bobby Mitchell, who was fatally shot Oct. 23, 2018, by Scott County Sheriff's deputy Greg Hill during a traffic stop.
For each of these victims, "homicide" is listed as the cause of death. But there were no trials, no jurors, no prosecutors, no apologies and no acknowledgments that less lethal actions could have been taken.
Dave O'Brien, a Cedar Rapids-based civil rights attorney, has taken on each of the five wrongful death lawsuits. He believes the problem largely lies with Iowa's non-adversarial approach to justice when it comes to investigating law enforcement officers. He pointed to an unwillingness by county and state attorneys to look at use of lethal force by officers through the lens of a prosecutor, meaning cases get dismissed before the facts can be argued in front of judges or juries.
"Our system just doesn't work when an officer is accused of wrong," O'Brien said. "We're supposed to have prosecutors that are aggressively trying to prove that a crime is committed and defense attorneys that are aggressively trying to prove that a crime wasn't committed. But when an officer commits a crime, there's no prosecutors around, there's no police officers out there trying to uncover evidence of wrongdoing. ...
"The truth doesn't come out. Our adversary system doesn't work, and then the moms are left to be the chief prosecutors."
Jessica Reynolds, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, countered that attorneys investigating cases of possible excessive force by police thoroughly review all the facts, including DCI reports, witness interviews and video footage, to decide whether charges are warranted.
"When there is an officer-involved shooting, it's serious. Someone is dead. We recognize that. We take them extremely seriously," she said. "It is paramount to our system of justice and the integrity of the justice system that county attorneys keep an independent and unbiased, open mind, when they are looking at these cases. We have to look at all of the evidence and find the truth."
Fatal encounters with police are investigated by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation, which submits its findings to an attorney, who decides whether to charge the officers involved.
This can be a county attorney where the death occurred, as was the case with Steele, Jensen and Mitchell; a neighboring county attorneys, as with Edwards; or one employed by the Iowa Attorney General's Office, as with Jones.
Since 2015, 42 people have been shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Iowa, according to state reports and the Washington Post's database of shootings by police, which tracks such shootings throughout the country. That number does not account for non-gun-related deaths. The most recent fatal shooting by police in the state occurred Nov. 16 in Waterloo.
Since 2004, the Iowa Attorney General's Office has charged two officers with improper use of force. Both were acquitted, one by a judge, another by a jury. The Attorney General's Office referred two other cases to grand juries. Neither officer was indicted.
A look at previous excessive force cases charged or referred by the Iowa Attorney General's office
Council Bluffs police officer Tim Fullmer fatally shot Brett Pace in December 2004. The AG office sent the case to a grand jury in Mills County, which returned no indictment in March 2005;
Shelby County Deputy Sheriff Chad Butler fatally shot Dwayne Jens in December 2004. The AG office sent the case to a grand jury, which charged Butler with voluntary manslaughter. A trial jury delivered a not-guilty verdict in June 2005;
Polk County Deputy Sheriff Keith Onley fatally shot Jonathan McCourt in June 2005. The Iowa AG office sent the case to a grand jury, which returned no indictment in July 2005; and
Muscatine Deputy Sheriff Michael Wade struck William Duffee during arrest in January 2011. The Iowa AG office charged Wade with assault resulting in injury in May 2011, but Wade was acquitted by a judge the following December.
Reynolds said the decision to bring charges against officers depends on whether the use of force was reasonable given the situation.
"You basically have to say, was this officer in fear of their own safety or the safety of others such that the actions they took were reasonable?" Reynolds told The Hawk Eye. "Depending on whether or not the officer feels threatened in those situations really determines the reasonableness of force."
The line between reasonable and unreasonable force is not always easy to distinguish. When someone fails to comply with an arrest, officers can use non-lethal force, but resisting arrest can turn deadly, as evidenced by Mitchell, who put his vehicle in drive and reverse multiple times in an attempt to flee before he was fatally shot.
Mitchell was pulled over for a broken brake light. After he was pulled over, police discovered he had an outstanding arrest warrant.
Families advocate for different approach to oversight: No more 'investigating ourselves'
Colbert, Thorington, Williams, Wagner and Steines believe systemic change is necessary to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
"Iowa is one of the states that's pushed back against this big movement for reform that's been slung around ever since (George) Floyd was killed," Colbert said. "I hate to get political, but a lot of these Republican-controlled states, they ignore and they block police reform proposals."
On June 12, 2020, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds did sign a bill banning most chokeholds by police. The new law prevents police officers from being hired if they were previously convicted of a felony, fired for misconduct or quit to avoid being fired for misconduct. It also requires annual training for law enforcement on de-escalation techniques and allows the attorney general to investigate deaths caused by an officer, adding another layer of scrutiny over such cases.
A year later, on June 17, Reynolds signed what's been called the "Back the Blue" bill, which strengthens legal protections for police and creates steeper penalties for protest-related crimes such as rioting and unlawful assembly.
"I really don't understand why they did that," Thorington said. "They already are giving them more protection than they should have."
During the signing ceremony for that legislation at the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Johnston, Reynolds said Iowa's law enforcement officers must know their state and lawmakers stand behind them.
"Like so many Iowans, I was raised to be grateful to the heroes who patrol our streets at great personal risk and sacrifice," she said. "And tragically, this fundamental and wholesome part of America’s culture is now under vicious attack."
Thorington would like to see Iowa join the at least 25 states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Connecticut and Massachusetts, that have considered reducing officers' immunity from criminal or civil charges since Floyd's death in Minneapolis.
"I think that needs to happen in more places, because once they see they're going to be held accountable, it will bring about change," Thorington said.
Colbert would like to see the creation of independent panels nationwide tasked with reviewing incidents of deadly force by law enforcement officers.
"It doesn't need to be the district attorney, the county attorney, the attorney general making these decisions, this investigating ourselves," Colbert said. "It doesn't need to be them making the decisions whether a police officer is charged for a crime. It needs to be reviewed by citizens, attorneys, maybe ex-judges, former law enforcement."
'I don't hate cops. I don't like lies': Searching for truth in the aftermath
For most of the women who have filed civil suits against Iowa law enforcement agencies, it wasn't until they had an attorney that they were able to get the information they desperately sought, including body and dash cam video and investigative documents.
Wagner, however, took a different path.
She said she was told by a DCI agent investigating her son's death that the DNR officer who was at the scene in Dakota City where her son had been holding a gun to his head shot Jensen after Jensen fired a shot in the air before pointing the gun at officers.
"I had no reason to disbelieve him," Wagner said, a bag filled with documents pertaining to her son's death that she obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests at her side.
The DCI statement given the next day conveyed the same message: "(Jensen) fired one round in the air and then pointed a loaded 9 mm handgun at officers," according to a Nov. 12, 2017, news release from the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
But a video taken by the resident of the home whose deck Jensen had been hiding under had begun to circulate on social media. The video since has been taken down, but it was shown to The Hawk Eye on the condition it not be shared due to its sensitive nature. The person who recorded the video asked not to be named.
The video shows Jensen fire one round in the air before holding the gun to his head and making a circular motion with it. At that point, Spece fires a single shot, fatally striking him in the chest.
"This is no police video," O'Brien said. "There is no cruiser video. There is no body-worn camera video. This is (someone) who happened to be peeking around the corner of the house."
Spece advocated for body cameras for DNR officers that same year, and the department began testing different equipment in 2019.
Wagner and O'Brien argue that the motion Jensen made was akin to a nervous tic. Jensen was on the autism spectrum and was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, attention deficit hyper disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.
"He hadn't threatened anyone other than himself. When they asked him to come out, he came out," Wagner said.
But the DCI report states that in making that motion, Jensen was pointing the gun in the direction of Spece and Humboldt County Sheriff's deputy Tim Fisher, both of whom had taken cover behind a Dumpster.
"At one point, JENSEN fired a round into the air. JENSEN then turned around again and eventually pointed the gun in the direction of SPECE and Fisher," the DCI report reads. "JENSEN continued to refuse orders to drop the gun and, when JENSEN lowered the weapon, SPECE fired one round from his issued rifle, hitting JENSEN in the chest and killing him. ... After discussion with the County Attorney, it was determined that SPECE was justified in shooting JENSEN and no criminal charges would be filed."
The two officers maintain that Jensen pointed the gun at them. During his deposition, Spece said, "He brought it ... full circle towards Tim and I. ... Everybody has their own little things that they do as they're getting read to shoot, preparing to pull the trigger."
Spece has been a firearms instructor for about 10 years. His career in law enforcement began in 2009 as a Marshall County correctional officer and reserve deputy before taking a position as an officer for the Eldora Police Department. He remained there for about 3½ years before becoming an officer with the Vinton Police Department. Nine months later, he became a conservation officer for the DNR.
Humboldt Police officer Thomas Nielsen said in his deposition that Jensen had pointed the gun directly at Nielsen when Nielsen encountered Jensen under the deck. Rather than fire at Jensen, Nielsen sought cover.
Wagner, reeling from her son's death and struggling to make sense of what really happened after seeing the video, began filing FOIA requests.
"Once things didn't add up, that's when I had to become kind of my own lawyer," Wagner said. "I sent everything certified, everything with a return receipt request. I got what I needed and I just kept going. ...
"If they would have told the truth from the beginning, we wouldn't have to be here. I'm not a cop hater. I don't hate cops. I don't like lies."
Wagner joined a Facebook group called Me Too Killed By Blue, whose nationwide membership is largely comprised of those who have lost loved ones in police encounters. That's how she met Gina Colbert, who referred her to O'Brien.
"Nobody understands what we go through except for those who did before us," Wagner said. "Finding Gina was an absolute godsend — somebody who understood the weird, raging thoughts I was having, guilt over why am I here and my son, who is 19, is gone."
'Nobody to help you but an attorney': A search for answers results in years-long legal battle
Colbert had tried for weeks to get answers about the circumstances surrounding her daughter's death. She wanted to see the full police video, not just the 12-second clip from officer Hill's body camera footage released in March 2015 by state investigators looking into Steele's death.
Then-Des Moines County Attorney Amy Beavers would later be fined $200 for withholding records Steele's family had requested after telling them on March 16, 2015, that she already had sent them to DCI and had not retained copies despite still having the records.
"There's nobody to help you but an attorney," Colbert said. "We asked and begged and were told that, 'Oh, we're fixing to turn over this and that and the whole video. ... We waited two weeks and ... we were even told, 'You're going to have to sue us to get the information.' We tried to do things the right way, the only way we knew how to do them. We're not sue-happy people."
The city agreed to give the records to the family on the condition that it not release them to the public. But just before signing a confidentiality agreement, the city's attorney said in an email that the city would not release the information until a court decided who could have access and under what circumstances, pointing to concern over the possibility of the family releasing the records anyway.
Colbert learned from news reports that officer Hill told DCI that her daughter's family dog attacked Hill while he was responding to her residence for a domestic disturbance, causing him to draw his weapon in an attempt to protect himself. Hill then slipped on the ice and fired two shots. One of those bullets fatally struck Steele.
A three-year battle headed by Steele's family and The Hawk Eye for release of additional footage and investigative documents ensued. The effort sparked national scrutiny over lack of police transparency when it comes to the release of footage taken by taxpayer-funded body and dashboard cameras. The BPD had purchased its first body cameras in 2014.
Hill returned to work and, in 2018, the city reached a $2 million settlement with Steele's family — Gabriel Steele, her husband; her two sons, who were 3 and 6 at the time of her death; and her mother — for her wrongful death.
Partial video release does not tell the whole story
O'Brien initially turned down Williams' case against the Burlington officers, the police department and the city.
"When Altovese first contacted the office, the information as I perceived it was that MarQuis had a gun in his hand when the officer shot him," O'Brien said. "It was later that we found out MarQuis had done exactly what we wanted him to do, which is listen to the orders of the police officers and drop the gun when told to do it ... and that’s why I know we have a good case."
Riffel told the DCI agent investigating the case the day after the incident that Jones had tipped the gun down toward him when he had grabbed Jones' arm after he had tackled him. In his deposition given Sept. 1, 2020, Riffel stated Jones pointed the gun at him.
The Burlington Police Department released footage taken by body cameras worn by Chiprez and Riffel, as well as footage captured by the dash cam of the squad car Chiprez was driving when the traffic stop, spurred by loud music, was initiated.
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: The video of the police shooting of MarQuis Jones may be disturbing to viewers.
Combined, the footage totaled 4 minutes and 43 seconds, and none showed what happened after Chiprez fired the fatal shot, which was that Jones had dropped the gun he had been carrying during the chase in a lawn about 50 yards away.
Chiprez joined the BPD in 2000 as a patrol officer. He worked as a detective from 2007 to 2012 before returning to patrol. Chiprez was named the department's Officer of the Year in 2015 for saving two lives in 2014, one an elderly man he rescued from a house fire, the other a man trying to hang himself.
Riffel had been with the BPD for 21 days at the time of the shooting. He now is a detective.
"In the instant an officer has to make a decision to shoot, he must process the situation and circumstances before him in his own mind independent of other officers," Brown wrote in his decision clearing the two officers. "The decision must be made quickly at the time the threat is perceived. There is no time to consult other officers concerning a decision to shoot or not shoot. In this particular incident, Officer Chiprez was objectively reasonable in firing his weapon to neutralize the threat posed by Jones."
O'Brien released additional footage from Chiprez's body camera in July 2020 after obtaining it during the discovery phase of Williams' lawsuit.
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: The video of the police shooting of MarQuis Jones is extremely graphic. The video was posted to YouTube by Dave O’Brien Law, the firm representing Altovese Williams, who is Jones’ mother, and Jones’ children in a wrongful death lawsuit.
The limited and reluctant release of footage in Iowa has not been isolated to Jones' death.
Video contradicts police account given to family
Steines immediately questioned what happened to her brother and started asking about the DCI's investigation, but felt she was largely kept in the dark.
Her requests for body camera footage went nowhere, with the city citing concerns for Edwards' privacy in denying the release of video, even after the case was closed. It was then that Steines decided it was time to find an attorney.
The decision clearing the officer and deputy in Edwards' death that was issued by Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren stated Edwards was Tased only twice.
In January 2020, O'Brien posted the body camera footage he obtained showing Edwards being Tased six times and sat upon as he struggled to draw breath.
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: The video of Drew Edwards' fatal encounter with law enforcement officers is extremely graphic.
The settlement was reached the following September, 15 months after Edwards' death.
'That's not what happened': Video shows deputy put himself in harm's way
Thorington was told by the county attorney her son gave deputy Hill no option other than to shoot.
"Had this officer been on the ground, being dragged ... then I could have an understanding of that," Thorington said. "Even as Bobby's mother, I was prepared to understand that, because I think of all the things that they couldn't know. But that's not what happened here."
What she saw in the footage taken by the body camera worn by Hill's partner in the early morning hours of Oct. 23, 2018, and released by officials was Hill telling Mitchell he was going to place him under arrest on an extraditable warrant from Indiana and to not get back in the still-running car Mitchell had been driving. Mitchell did the opposite and got back in before trying to drive away.
Hill dived after Mitchell and held onto his left hand as the vehicle lurched forward and backward. In going after Mitchell as he did, O'Brien argues, Hill unnecessarily put himself in danger.
Ian Russell, an attorney representing Scott County in the suit, denied this claim, and many others, in a response to the petition filed by O'Brien in September 2020.
Hill was never off his feet. Rather than letting go, Hill hung on and fired three shots at Mitchell, two of which struck him.
Wounded, Mitchell continued to drive until reaching a gas station on Kimberly Road. Thorington believes he was trying to make it to her home. He was pronounced dead later that day at Genesis Medical Center, East Campus in Davenport.
"Bobby can't be here to defend himself," Thorington said. "It's my job to do that for him now."
Russell, in his response to the wrongful death petition, stated Hill's actions were in self-defense or the defense of others and thus were justified, and that the defendants are immune from suit under Iowa law.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said he could not comment due to ongoing litigation.
Hill joined the Scott County Sheriff’s office as a deputy in 2008. In 2013, he became a narcotics agent at the Quad City Metropolitan Enforcement Group, which he would later supervise for 2½ years. He also is a K-9 handler. He returned to patrol as a patrol deputy in 2018 before joining the department's special operations unit. He was promoted to sergeant in August.
George Floyd response leaves women feeling their loved ones' deaths were overlooked
On June 2, 2020, Altovese Williams joined hundreds of southeast Iowa residents outside the Burlington Memorial Auditorium as they protested against racism and police brutality in the wake of the death of Floyd.
Smartphone footage of Floyd's death posted online sparked worldwide outrage and calls for changes. In contrast, the death of Williams' son more than two years earlier was met largely with subdued anger among community members.
At the Burlington demonstration after Floyd's death, Williams listened as chants of "Say his name," were met with the words "George Floyd," followed soon after by "MarQuis Jones."
Burlington Police officers stood among the crowd and offered words of comfort to the event's speakers.
Then-police chief Dennis Kramer told The Hawk Eye at the time that he believed police and community members needed to "stand together to beat this issue" and that Chauvin needed "to be locked up and put away for the crimes he committed."
The BPD's acknowledgment of Chauvin's unjustified use of excessive force against Floyd and the world's united response struck a chord with Williams.
"Black Lives Matter," Williams said. "Of course Black lives matter. But why did all of these people have to die before people started saying it? My son died in 2017 and nobody was saying that. ... People will tell me MarQuis is in a better place. No, he's not. Prison is a better place, because then I could see my son."
The similarities between the deaths of her brother and Floyd were inescapable for Steines.
Both Edwards and Floyd were deprived of oxygen for extended periods of time, Edwards by Schroeder, who sat on Edwards' head even as the 22-year-old's breath became labored and ragged; and Floyd by Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd's neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
"I got so embedded into the George Floyd trial, just because there were so many similarities," Steines said. "I felt like I was living Drew's death over again."
Steines never could bring herself to watch the body camera footage of the events leading up to the death of her brother. But she did see videos of Floyd.
"When I watched it, it was like, 'Oh my God, that cop killed a guy just like Drew'," Steines recalled. "The act itself is what I saw. The world saw a hate crime, and maybe it was. ... When I looked at it, it was a cop killed another person."
Chauvin ultimately was sentenced to 22½ years in prison for Floyd's murder. His arrest and conviction was followed by a cascade of excessive force-related charges against police officers throughout the U.S.
Lynn Hicks, a spokesperson for the Iowa Attorney General's Office, cautioned against making generalized comparisons between Iowa cases and those in other states.
"Each case has individual fact patterns, and one state’s laws may be different than Iowa’s," he said.
But the Iowa families can't help but see a troubling discrepancy. Colbert argues for a federal solution.
"It's just crazy how one state, one town, one county will do something totally different than the other," she said.
The Iowa families see echoes of their cases elsewhere.
Colbert thought of Steele when she heard that Arlington, Texas, police officer Ravinder Singh was charged with criminally negligent homicide in September 2020 for killing Margarita Brooks as Singh attempted to shoot a dog.
Wagner thought of Jensen on June 17, 2020, when Atlanta Police officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with felony murder and multiple counts of assault with a deadly weapon for killing Rayshard Brooks.
And Thorington thought of her son when Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer Kimberly Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the April 11 death of 20-year-old Daunte Wright.
It's this kind of response that Thorington wishes she would have gotten for her son's death.
Wagner has withdrawn from her community in northwest Iowa since losing her son, but she's been drawn into another as she met more and more families who have suffered similar losses.
No longer does she use her graphic design skills to craft wedding invitations. Instead, she designs keepsakes for those she has met through social media to memorialize their loved ones. Among them is a sweatshirt that reads: "Hands Up Stand Up Against Police Brutality."
On the back are the names of lives lost during police encounters.
"When I started, there were 99 names here," she said. "In the last 2½ years, I'm up to version seven."
There now are 700 names.
This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Wrongful death suits filed by families of Iowans killed by officers