IOWA FALLS – A judge has sided with law enforcement in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of an Iowa Falls man who was shot by police during a 2014 standoff where more than 60 rounds were fired.
Relatives of Leighton Fitz filed a suit against the State of Iowa, Hardin County and the City of Iowa Falls, along with eight officers, alleging excessive force was used after Fitz exited his College Avenue home with a knife and a silver handgun while wearing a bulletproof vest.
In a ruling issued in August, U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Strand granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants and dismissed the lawsuit.
“Based on the undisputed facts of record, I find that the officers had probable cause to believe Fitz posed a serious threat of physical harm,” Strand wrote in the ruling. “They were not required to wait until the gun was drawn or pointed at them in order to use deadly force.”
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Attorneys for Fitz’s estate had argued Fitz was trying to comply with officers’ orders but was given confusing commands, with different officers telling him to drop his weapons and keep his hands raised, and then shooting when he reached for the pistol.
Strand wrote there was no admissible evidence in the record to suggest Fitz was complying or hadn’t reached for the pistol.
“He told the officers that if he was going to use a gun, it would be with his left hand. He then reached for, and began to draw, a gun from his left-side pocket with his left hand. Only at this point were shots fired at Leighton,” Strand wrote.
According to court records, Fitz’s ex-girlfriend called police April 17, 2014, to report a dispute, and she noted he may have a firearm. City police, county sheriff’s deputies, state troopers and an Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement agent — a total of 23 officers — responded.
Authorities were unable to reach Fitz by phone, but he later left his house and allegedly ignored officers’ commands to get on the ground. He pulled a cell phone from his right pocket and held it out in an offer to have police read messages on the phone. Fitz dropped the phone and then removed a knife he was wearing and dropped it, court records state.
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Authorities had considered using a Taser on Fitz but abandoned the plan after they learned he was wearing body armor, records state.
During depositions, officers said Fitz was told not to touch the gun, but once he reached for it, they told him to drop the weapon. The shooting started when he reached for the gun, records state.
Five officers from the State Patrol, Iowa Falls Police and Iowa Department of Narcotics Enforcement fired 68 shots in eight seconds, record state. Fitz was struck 17 times and died at the scene.