An Iowa City civil rights attorney said a $4 million wrongful death settlement by the City of Maquoketa is one of the largest in Iowa history for this type of case and signifies an acknowledgement of “significant problems” with how law enforcement handled a call that resulted in Drew Edwards’ death. 

While details of the settlement have not yet been made public, in such cases the government generally does not claim fault. However, the dollar amount is noteworthy, said Marty Diaz, who handles civil rights cases at Martin Diaz Law Firm.

“You (the government agency) say we’re not admitting fault, but at some point the amount of money – when you’re paying $4 million – says we recognize we have some significant problems,” said Diaz, who has been in practice almost four decades.

Edwards was 22 when he died on June 15, 2019, after Maquoketa Police Officer Mike Owen shot him with a Taser. Owen, Jackson County Chief Deputy Steve Schroeder and Maquoketa Police Officer Brendan Zeimet then restrained him face down on the ground for about 12 minutes at the southeast corner of Apple and Main streets. Edwardsbecame unresponsive at the scene and was pronounced dead at Jackson County Regional Health Center.  

A report released last fall by Dr. Kelly Kruse, assistant Iowa state medical examiner, said that cardiac arrest during restraint caused Edwards’ death. Several illegal drugs were found in his system.

After Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren and the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation found no evidence of criminal conduct by the Maquoketa Police Department and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Edward’s death, the family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Maquoketa, Jackson County, Owen, Schroeder and Zeimet in October. 

While Schroeder and Jackson County Supervisors Chairman Mike Steines said they could not comment on the county’s case because it is still in litigation, Dave O’Brien, the Edwards’ family attorney, said a tentative $500,000 agreement has been reached with the county. 

The tentative agreements include language that call for a review of the police use-of-force policy, something the Edwards family has said is important to them, that could result in changes, according to O’Brien, who is based in Cedar Rapids. 

The city will not specifically discuss the settlement agreement until the probate hearing has been resolved, Smith said. 

That could happen as early as this week, O’Brien said. The motion to approve the settlement has been filed with the probate court. 

Maquoketa Police Chief Brad Koranda did not return multiple calls and emails seeking comment.

The city of Maquoketa will pay $2,500 out-of-pocket toward the settlement, Smith said. Des Moines-based EMC (Employers Mutual Co.), the city’s insurance company, will pay out the rest. 

The city paid EMC an annual premium of $186,107 in April for a policy that covers all city operations, Smith said, adding that he would expect a premium adjustment going forward.

 “As in all insurance, I’m sure there will be a modest impact, but the City’s experience in such losses is exceptionally low and should only result in a nominal impact,” Smith said.

The settlement of wrongful death suits involving police and excessive use of force have been higher profile on the national scene recently, Diaz said. 

A report by ABC News in June said that government entities spent some $300 million in the 2019 fiscal year defending claims against police for false arrests, civil rights violations and excessive force.

In Iowa, O’Brien represented the family of Autumn Steele, who was fatally shot by a Burlington police officer in 2015. That lawsuit was settled for $2 million in 2018.

In 2016 the family of Derrick Ambrose, Jr., an unarmed 22-year-old man fatally shot by a Waterloo, Iowa, police officer in 2012, settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the city for $2.5 million, which at the time was believed to be the largest city settlement of a police-shooting lawsuit in Iowa history. 

Civil rights cases in Iowa fall into two categories, Diaz said. The first – discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, etc. – falls under Iowa state laws. 

Cases such as the Edwards and Steele lawsuits that involve government agents and possible violations of the Iowa or U.S. Constitution are the second category. When Diaz started practicing law in 1983, such cases were difficult to win. 

“It was a losing proposition,” he said, noting that the concept of principal qualified immunity was not easy to overcome.

“Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations – like the right to be free from excessive police force – for money damages under federal law so long as the officials did not violate ‘clearly established’ law,” according to the legal website, lawfare.com

It is a push-and-pull between two polar concepts, Diaz explained. 

“On one side, it’s we can’t allow government agents to be sued on a regular basis because it would bring things to a halt,” he said. “On the other hand, we can’t allow constitutional rights to be violated because that’s not the role of government.”

He stopped doing civil rights cases in the 1990s because “it was like beating your head against a wall,” he said. He returned to that practice in 2016 because he saw a change.

“That shift is occurring now when people are talking about what they see in television. What’s changed is the ability of these constitutional wrongs to show up in your house every night on your news,” Diaz said.

A 2014 report released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa found that law enforcement’s Taser policies across the state “were woefully inadequate,” said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director. 

While she noted she is not familiar with the particulars of the Edwards’ case, she believes stronger state legislation is needed to standardize prohibitions on the use of Tasers and provide better training in de-escalation.

“More broadly, cases such as this highlight so many of the key reforms that must be made in the way we police our communities. Police officers must be better trained on the use of tasers, which are wrongly referred to as non-lethal, when in reality they have caused many deaths over the years, in Iowa and nationwide,” Bettis Austen said. “Police need to be better trained on de-escalation techniques so that everyday encounters don’t turn into a death sentence for the person involved.”

While cases that result in large monetary settlements get a lot of attention, she believes the details of policing need attention.

“Our local leaders and legislators need to fundamentally re-imagine how police interact with the public, including dealing with mental health crises with better-trained police or different staffing entirely and citizens review boards that have true oversight and input on police activity and complaints,” she said.

— Kelly Gerlach contributed to this story.