The beginning of this statewide project looking into how police video is captured, managed and shared with the public traces back to two long-running stories that played out in Clinton and Jackson counties.
The whole of each story came into complete public focus only after the eventual release of multiple videos captured by police body cameras and dashcams.
For those of you who have read this newspaper closely over the past two years, both stories will be familiar; for those who are not, I’ll provide some background in a moment.
But before we get to that, I want to share some good news.
Your hometown newspaper, as a participant in this project, made public records requests of each law enforcement agency in Clinton and Jackson counties late last year, and each responded in an appropriate and legal manner.
A second piece of promising news is that newly elected sheriffs in Clinton and Jackson counties have both publicly pledged to operate their departments with a high level of transparency and to fully comply with Iowa’s open records law.
With that said, here are the basic details of the two stories that sparked the idea for this project:
The first involved a 2019 police call in which police found Jackson County prosecutor Amanda Lassance behind the wheel of her car along U.S. Highway 61 in Clinton County with beer cans scattered about and slurring her speech. Eventually, after Sycamore Media (owner of The Observer) determined that police did not subject Lassance to a sobriety test at the scene and provided her with a ride away from her car that night and a ride back the next morning, it sought police video from the departments that responded to the call.
Those departments included the Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the Maquoketa City Police Department and the Bellevue City Police Department. Within a few weeks, despite an initial denial from then-Clinton County Sheriff Rick Lincoln and Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolfe, Sycamore Media, through freedom of information requests filed under Iowa’s open records law, obtained what it believed to be all the police video taken at the scene – except for that which was captured by a Maquoketa police officer.
Maquoketa Police Chief Brad Koranda denied Sycamore Media’s request. Sycamore Media then, to no avail, appealed to the city council, asking it to honor the law and overturn Koranda’s decision.
Sycamore Media then successfully sued the police department, gained access to the video and was awarded attorney fees of almost $16,000.
The other case involved a police call in which Drew Edwards, then 22, died in June 2019 after an altercation with officers from the Maquoketa Police Department and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. Sycamore Media’s request for city police video from the scene was denied, but it eventually gained access to the footage more than six months later through the Edwards family’s attorney.
The video showed that after a Maquoketa police officer shot Edwards with a Taser, officers restrained him, face to the ground, until he became unresponsive. Edwards was restrained for about 12 minutes and was pronounced dead at Jackson County Regional Health Center.
The Edwards family was eventually awarded $4 million in a wrongful death suit against the city and $500,000 in a suit against the county.
The Sycamore Media public records reporting on these two stories sparked a discussion among members of the Iowa Newspaper Association’s government-relations committee, and from that discussion this statewide reporting project was born.