Pursuing Justice for My Son, Another Unarmed Black Man Killed by Police

When a Waterloo police officer shot my unarmed 22-year-old son Derrick in the back of the head and killed him in 2012, city officials knew just how to push the incident through the criminal justice system.
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When a Waterloo police officer shot my unarmed 22-year-old son Derrick in the back of the head and killed him in 2012, city officials knew just how to push the incident through the criminal justice system.

A controversial expert witness helped justify the killing before the local grand jury. No ballistics testing was done. The officer, who chased my son away from a nightclub before killing him, was not disciplined, even after giving inconsistent statements to local and state investigators.

Well-timed newspaper coverage, with leading investigative details, allowed readers to conclude my son got what he deserved. After all, he had a gun. Few cared that he dropped the gun -- for which he had a permit -- before he was chased to his death. Racist internet trolls had their fun: just another black thug dead in America -- or despicable words to that effect.

With my son dead, and no good answers as to why, I wanted the truth about what happened that terrible night. An investigation by my lawyers -- Mel Orchard, Tom Frerichs, and Noah Drew -- led to a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Waterloo. As our lawsuit alleged, we found that:

• contrary to the city statements to the news media, Derrick posed no threat to the shooting officer or anyone else,

• an eyewitness who was live reporting the event to police dispatchers asked why my son was shot since he never turned toward the officer or pointed anything at the officer,

• the official investigations misrepresented the gunshot wound trajectory and the body position of my son,

• 12 of the 16 city police officers who reported to the shooting scene had body microphones the city later claimed "malfunctioned" or were intentionally turned off during and after the shooting,

• the audio recorder in the car of the police supervisor at the scene inexplicably "malfunctioned" after recording part of the supervisor's conversation with the shooting officer,

• the findings of the Waterloo police department shooting review board were drafted by the department's internal affairs division before the board was even convened,

• the shooting review board meeting was not recorded, in violation of department regulations, except for the vote that found the officer's actions "reasonable."

Our investigation and lawsuit provided a grim look at our justice system. I learned that Iowa has one of the nation's highest incarceration rates of African-Americans, and far too many allegations of excessive force by police. And I learned from a groundbreaking Washington Postinvestigation, that while black men represent six percent of the U.S. population, we make up nearly 40 percent of those who killed while unarmed. That startling reality cannot be blamed on city budget problems, bad parenting, or other societal excuses, regardless of what cable TV news talking heads would tell us.

Nearly three years after Derrick died, the city of Waterloo approached my lawyers and requested to settle our family's lawsuit. We agreed to do so -- with a condition that city officials agree to meet about possible police reforms. So far, that meeting has not happened.

The lawsuit settlement, believed to be the largest in Iowa history for a police shooting, will not bring back my son, but it may raise awareness of what is wrong with law enforcement in Iowa and around the nation. I hope Derrick's death can be a catalyst for change in Waterloo and other American cities.

As a career member of our nation's armed forces, I respect police officers and the challenges they face. But I also believe in accountability. Cities -- from mayors and councils to police chiefs and command staffs -- must be held accountable for police officers that escalate violence instead of preventing it. We also must find ways to better support and train our good police officers.

Until that happens, in Waterloo and elsewhere, I will continue searching for purpose in the senseless death of my son.

Derrick Ambrose, Sr., is a U.S. Army sergeant major with seven foreign tours of duty in 26 years of military service.

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