IFOIC sues Polk County for records from fatal shooting of motorist

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council sued the Polk County Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday for refusing to make public its records related to the fatal shooting of a motorist in Altoona on June 17, 2018.

The lawsuit asks a Polk County District Court judge to order the sheriff to release the records.

Deputy Sheriff Ryan Phillips, 31, stopped motorist Isaiah Hayes, 25, of Ashland, Wis., about 3:30 a.m. just east of Altoona, the sheriff’s department has said. According to officials, the vehicle had been stolen.

Moments after being pulled over, Hayes drove off and the deputy began chasing him. The pursuit ended minutes later in an Altoona cul-de-sac in the 200 block of Fifth Street N.W. when Hayes stopped his vehicle, jumped out and began running from the scene.

Phillips told investigators he saw what he believed was a weapon when Hayes left the vehicle. Phillips said he fired at the fleeing man, who fell to the ground. Hayes died at the scene.

A Polk County grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against Phillips, an eight-year member of the sheriff’s department. An internal sheriff’s department investigation also cleared the deputy of any improper conduct.

But sheriff’s officials have continued to refuse to explain why Phillips first stopped Hayes or to confirm whether any weapon was found with Hayes’ body.

Officials also have refused to say how many shots Phillips fired and whether Hayes was hit from behind or from the front during the shooting.

Polk County sheriff’s officials have declined to answer other questions about the incident — both in the hours after the shooting and after the grand jury cleared Phillips last October of any criminal conduct.

The Iowa FOI Council filed the lawsuit after Polk County officials refused to release any records the council requested in May in a letter to the sheriff’s department.

The council asked for copies of the dash camera video from Phillips’ squad car, for the audio recordings of the police radio traffic involving the initial traffic stop, during the pursuit of Hayes, and at the time of the shooting. The council also requested an inventory of evidence gathered at the shooting scene that would confirm whether a weapon was, or was not, among the materials recovered by investigators.

Polk County officials said the materials sought by the FOI organization are part of the law enforcement investigative files of the incident and need to remain confidential.

But the lawsuit says the Iowa FOI Council and the public have a strong interest in the conduct of law officers, especially in incidents like the one involving Deputy Phillips that end in deaths. The Iowa Supreme Court has endorsed that view, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit cited a Washington Post report that law officers in the United States killed 992 people in 2018. According to the Post’s statistics, Hayes was the 403rd person killed by police last year.

Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa FOI Council, said, “It’s disappointing that Polk County officials have failed to grasp the heightened public interest in the actions of their law officers that result in the loss of life.”

He added, “Continuing to assert that the public is not entitled to basic information about Mr. Hayes’ death — especially after the Iowa Supreme Court reached a unanimous decision to the contrary in a similar case this spring — only serves to erode public respect and confidence in our law officers.”

Access to police video recordings, to 911 and police radio traffic recordings, and to other investigative records would allow citizens to ensure the conduct of law officers meets society’s expectations for officers to act properly and to protect, not jeopardize, public safety, the lawsuit says.

“Plaintiffs and the public in general therefore have a substantial interest in learning the facts and details surrounding the Isaiah Hayes homicide,” the lawsuit says.

Under Iowa’s public records law, even if the judge concludes the materials sought by the Iowa FOI Council are confidential, the court still can order the records released to serve the public interest after the court balances the competing interests of the parties, the lawsuit says.

“This court’s independent authority and the grounds by which it may compel disclosure of the Hayes incident reports have been endorsed by the Iowa Supreme Court” — most recently in a decision in April in a lawsuit brought by Jerime Mitchell of Cedar Rapids, who sued the Cedar Rapids Police Department after he was paralyzed when a police officer shot him during a traffic stop for having a broken tail light on his pickup truck.

The Iowa FOI Council’s lawsuit says the Iowa Supreme Court found in the Cedar Rapids case and in a 1994 case involving the Burlington Police Department and the Burlington Hawk Eye newspaper that matters involving the actions of police officers are of legitimate public concern.

“Considering the backdrop of Mitchell and Hawk Eye, this court should use its statutory and equitable powers to compel disclosure of the Hayes incident records … because the same public interest considerations that prevailed in those cases outweigh defendants’ continued interest in secrecy,” the lawsuit states.

The Iowa FOI Council is being represented by Des Moines attorneys Michael A. Giudicessi and Susan P. Elgin of the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm.

The council is a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved public access to government meetings and records in furtherance of public accountability of Iowa’s state and local governments.