November 18, 2020 will be the eight-year anniversary of Derrick Ambrose Jr.’s death by Waterloo Police Department officer Kyle Law. Ambrose was killed exactly two weeks after his 22nd birthday.
That makes this time of year doubly hard for his mother, Toyia Ambrose Hunter.
“It’s an emotional time for me,” Hunter told Starting Line in her first interview about her son’s death. “It’s been eight years—eight long years—but every year, right at the end of September through October and November 4th was his birthday … I’m just full on in that mode of missing my son.”
On November 18, 2012, in the early morning, Officer Kyle Law arrived at New World Lounge after responding to a report of a disturbance and a man, later identified as Ambrose, with a gun. Within minutes, Ambrose would run and Law would chase him before shooting him in the back of the head and leg.
Hunter expected the Waterloo Police Department to look into what happened.
“They never expended themselves, as a police department should do,” said Hunter. “You have an officer that’s charged with doing wrong to my son. You never came and said, ‘We’re sorry about this, we’re going to get to the bottom’—they never done any of that! They never showed any empathy to us, the family, the community at all.“
In fact, Hunter learned her son had been killed when her daughter called saying, “They’re dead!” Frantic, Hunter rushed to the scene and ran to an officer near the ambulance, telling him Ambrose was her son. After doubting her identity, he said, “Ma’am, I guarantee whoever that is on the sidewalk, his brains are splattered.”
So much for empathy.
After learning that, according to Law, her son had hid behind a tree and stuck his head out and Law had shot him, Hunter returned to the site the next morning.
“If you can see the [tree] limbs,” said Hunter, ”you would know there was no tree. No way he could have hid behind the tree.”
She and her then-husband Derrick Ambrose Sr. stated they saw the tree being cut down. Two days after killing Ambrose, Law changed his story, stating Ambrose tripped and fell and, still holding the gun, started to rise, so Law shot Ambrose twice.
So much for WPD getting to the bottom of things.
“All we wanted was justice,” said Hunter. “When you shoot a 22-year-old young Black man in the back of his head, that means automatically that he was running away, which pose no threat to you—the officer, Kyle Law—or the crowd.”
Hunter and Ambrose Sr. didn’t get justice.
There was no trial. Instead, after five days, a closed grand jury found no reason to charge Law.
“This is the reason we filed the lawsuit, because they wouldn’t do anything,” said Hunter.
According to Ambrose Sr., Dan Trelka, Chief of Police at that time, had sent the case to mediation. When that failed, they filed the lawsuit.
The lawsuit reported the microphones of 12 of the 16 officers at the scene had “malfunctioned” or were not turned on, the car audio recorder “malfunctioned,” Law provided different stories to different investigating bodies, there were gaps in procedures and investigation, and more. Additionally, a witness said that Ambrose had thrown away his gun (which he had a license to carry) before he was shot.
Expert witness Ken Katsaris, an independent consultant and renowned instructor/law enforcement officer who was instrumental in catching serial killer Ted Bundy, stated in his 28-page affidavit that had Law followed numerous policies and tactics, Ambrose’s death would have been prevented. Expert witness Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist and independent consultant, stated Ambrose was running at the time he was shot.
“There is no way Mr. Ambrose could have been turning and pointing a weapon at the officer or throwing a weapon as he was shot or thereafter,” she stated in her 14-page report.
Both Ambrose and Hunter still want justice.
“The media never came to us asking our point or anything,” Hunter said.
So part of that justice for Hunter is having her son’s story known, for others to think it’s important, and for others to be aware that this is not the first or last time—as evidenced by the stories of Trayvon Martin, George Floyd and countless others—this has or will happen, and that we must come together to change things.
Part of justice is having people know her son.
“You had him branded as a 22-year-old thug,” said Hunter. “That’s not who he was. My son was a protector. He was a middle child but he always felt like he would jump over and protect his brother and sister and me. He was our keeper. Anyone that he loved, he was their protector, their superman.”
“He was very intelligent,” said Ambrose Sr. “He had great grades. Derrick had a government job with clearance working on post [Fort Stewart in Georgia].” In 2010 he returned to Waterloo and worked at Tyson. “He wasn’t perfect … but he was a good kid.”
Part of justice is getting the Waterloo Police Department to make changes to its policies and procedures.
Ambrose Sr. has been advocating for changes pertaining to excessive use of force, use of cameras and microphones, along with updated equipment and more. While some changes were made in 2017, as presented in a detailed analysis by Laura Belin for Bleeding Heartland and in August 2020 as summarized in an ordinance created by Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, Ambrose Sr. has read about some of these changes but has not been informed in person, as requested.
“Mayor Hart called four months ago. He said, ‘We haven’t forgotten about your son and what you asked of us,’” said Ambrose Sr.
Hart went to school with Hunter, spoke at Ambrose Jr.’s funeral, and wasn’t mayor at the time of his death.
“[When it’s safe to travel] they need to fly me there and allow me to have an interview with this new police chief. Which is really wrong, because it should have been with Trelka. I still want that to this day. That would give me more closure on the murder of my son.”
And of course justice to them would include Law being convicted for killing their son.
Then the conversation returned to justice and Trelka.
“Justice would be for you not to vote him in office for anything,” said Hunter. “For you to know that Trelka never helped us, Trelka never cared.”
Ambrose Sr. agrees, stating, “These are the for things I charge him with: accountability, integrity, leadership, and being transparent and doing the job of a leader, and I just think he failed in that area.”
During Trelka’s time as Chief of Police, the City of Waterloo paid nearly $4.5 million in malpractice claims (most were paid between 2010 and 2015), which was 67% of the total claims paid. At least four of the excessive force cases made the news, with none of the officers involved facing repercussions for their actions. The Hunter-Ambrose lawsuit was awarded the largest settlement, believed to be the largest in Iowa: $2.5 million.
Ambrose Sr. sums things up for both of them: “No matter how much money the case was and we won, that’s never going to bring my son Derrick Jr. back. I would trade that in a heartbeat to have my son with me to this day.”
Which is one reason why Hunter feels it’s important to vote—and not vote for Trelka.
“You can’t change the past but can change the future,” she said.
By Rachelle Chase
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