Religious music played from a speaker in the corner of the pavilion as family members and friends embraced each other and remembered the life of Robert R. Mitchell on Tuesday evening in Davenport's Centennial Park.
Mitchell, 23, was shot by Deputy Greg Hill of the Scott County Sheriff's Department on Oct. 23, 2018. Mitchell had allegedly tried to run from a traffic stop. He died from his wounds that night in the hospital.
Tuesday would have been Mitchell's 26th birthday. His sister, Katherine Wright, said Mitchell's family and friends had been gathering every year to celebrate his birthday since he died.
"It was the most gut-wrenching thing that you can hear from anybody," Wright said. "It's awful when a family member is killed by police. You have no one to turn to, except your family."
Mitchell was pulled over by Hill for a bad brake light, and after a call to dispatch, Hill discovered Mitchell was wanted for a minor crime. Mitchell attempted to flee and Hill was dragged by the car. Hill shot Mitchell twice.
"We just felt like there were ways it could have been handled differently," Wright said.
Several of the people at the party wore matching T-shirts with Mitchell's picture on the front and the words "Stop Police Brutality" on the back. Wright said she didn't have any ill will toward police officers, but she wanted to emphasize the principle that there were other ways to respond to a situation like Mitchell's.
Mitchell's mother, Patty Thorington, wore a necklace with her son's face printed on a heart. She spoke about his life and all of the opportunities he missed out on, including never having held his baby nephew.
"He wasn't the bad person that they tried to paint him as," Thorington said. "He meant a lot to a lot of people. It feels like we've been robbed."
Thorington said her son wasn't a perfect person — he had issues he had been trying to work through — but he always tried to help people, including volunteering regularly at a food bank.
In November 2018, Scott County Attorney Mike Walton determined the use of force against Mitchell was justified, but in April of this year, Cedar Rapids civil rights attorney Dave O'Brien filed a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit against Hill and Walton. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Wright said that in the meantime, Mitchell's loved ones were trying to keep his memory alive.
"We'll be out here every year," Wright said.