Dec 10, 2021 - News

The price of hiding footage

A photo of Polk County deputy Ryan Phillips.
Ryan Phillips was a Polk County Sheriff's deputy in 2018. He is now a sergeant with the department. Photo courtesy of the Polk County Sheriff's Office

An attorney for the family of a Wisconsin resident who was shot and killed by a Polk County sheriff's deputy in 2018 told Axios this week that the shooting "more likely than not was justified."

Why it matters: The case drew questions over why video evidence was withheld for more than two years after the shooting.

  • It also cost the county at least $170,000 to settle legal disputes.

Flashback: Polk County sheriff's officials said Isaiah Hayes robbed a Grinnell Walmart and led law enforcement on two high-speed chases on July 17, 2018.

  • Polk deputy Ryan Phillips shot and killed Hayes as he tried to flee on foot in an Altoona neighborhood, sheriff's officials said.
  • Hayes was holding a gun at the time of the shooting, according to the sheriff's officials. Methamphetamine was later found in Hayes' system, autopsy records show.

Catch up quick: Phillips returned to work about three months after the shooting.

  • The Iowa Freedom of Information Council (IFOI) sued the county over the video evidence in 2019, which prompted its release last year and the county to pay $120,000 for the group's legal bills.
  • Hayes' family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2020, questioning whether the grainy footage that was ultimately released showed a gun as investigators had concluded.

The latest: Dave O'Brien, the attorney of Hayes' family, told Axios this week that a video expert they hired concluded that Hayes was holding a BB gun at the time of the shooting.

What he's saying: The family has settled its case for $50,000, a far lesser amount than what would have otherwise been likely because "it's hard to quibble" with the officer's actions, O'Brien said.

  • He added that it's probable neither lawsuit would have been filed had the records been released soon after the investigation concluded.
  • Polk County Sheriff officials declined to comment this week.

Between the lines: Iowa's public records law, which was enacted more than 50 years ago, predates certain technology, such as body cameras.

  • There are widely divergent rules in place among Iowa law enforcement agencies regarding video release, according to a statewide investigation published this year by Iowa Newspaper Association (INA) members.

Thought bubble: Updating the law could help avoid lawsuits and improve Iowa's judicial system.

Editor's note: Jason represents Axios on the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. The group's lawsuit in the Hayes case was resolved before he joined the organization.

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