The Cedar Rapids Civil Service Commission voted on Friday to keep the appeal hearing for fired police officer Lucas Jones all virtual in light of increased cases of COVID-19 in Linn County. The two-day hearing is scheduled to begin on Sept. 22.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department fired Jones in June for turning off a microphone that should have been recording a traffic stop he conducted on Oct. 30, 2016, then lying about it. His letter of termination details six violations stemming from the traffic stop that led to him receiving letters of reprimand, a 40-hour suspension and eventually being fired.
The commission first began discussing a possible format and dates for the appeal hearing in July. During the July 23 meeting, commission chair Nancy Evans seemed inclined to have the hearing in person due to the “significant public interest” in the case. However, Evans and the other two commissioners Kory Kazimour and Greg Reed all expressed hesitations due to the rising COVID-19 cases.
The following week the three commissioners voted during their July 31 meeting to conduct the hearing online. Attorney Mo Sheronick, who is representing the commission, said this was the safest legal option.
Jones’s lawyer Skylar Limkemann and attorney Jason Craig, who is representing the CRPD, have pushed for an in-person hearing during the last month and a half. A joint motion was filed by the lawyers to delay the hearing from August to September in hopes of holding it in person.
In addition to technology concerns, Craig said an online hearing potentially gives Jones a procedural issue to raise on appeal, if he objects to the lack of an in-person hearing. Limkemann said he believes an online hearing would deny Jones his due process and that Jones strongly objects to a virtual hearing.
At the start of Friday’s meeting, the city’s human resources director Teresa Feldmann presented an option if the commission decided to switch to an in-person hearing. Feldmann said she had also asked Linn County Public Health for guidance.
Feldmann said there was a large venue available that would allow for social distancing. Attendees would be screened, required to wear masks, use hand-sanitizing stations and practice social distancing. Feldmann said attendees would need to register and provide their contact information in case contact tracing had to be done later.
Despite the precautions and plan outlined by Feldmann, all three commissioners expressed their desire to keep the hearing fully virtual.
“I don’t think there’s any sign that the virus is downplayed and that we’re really in good shape now,” Reed said. “I think we’re at a peak in Linn County.”
Kazimour added that she appreciates Feldmann looking into the possibility of doing the hearing in-person but doesn’t think it’s worth the risk.
“I feel the same way,” Evans added. “You know, contact tracing is fine, but being inside for two days with people who may or may not be honest about their symptoms doesn’t inspire me with confidence.”
Cityc of Cedar Rapids Civil Service Commission Meeting – September 11, 2020. Comments are not moderated.
Posted by City of Cedar Rapids Iowa Government on Friday, September 11, 2020
After the commission unanimously voted to keep the hearing all online, Limekemann asked if there was another date where the commission would feel comfortable for an in-person hearing.
“It’s my client and his livelihood and his future,” Limekemann said. “He has the potential to be decertified based on this action, so there are very grave consequences here.”
Evans said she doesn’t think it’s possible to pick a future date because it’s unclear when things will get better with the pandemic.
“I can’t tell you. I don’t know who can. Who can tell us when it will be safe for everybody to get back together? Anybody else know the answer to that question?” Evans asked, with no one responding to her.
Both attorneys also had questions about the logistics of the virtual hearing, particularly if clients and witnesses will be in the same room as the attorneys. Even though the commission voted to have the hearing virtually, Evans said she would not object to attorneys and witnesses being in the same room “if you’re willing to take that risk.”
Craig asked Limkemann if he has ideas of if the witnesses should be in the same room as the attorney or if they should be participating virtually.
“Frankly, I do not, and I was hoping that the commission would provide some guidance on it,” Limkemann said. “I assumed when the commission had directed that this be held all virtual that nobody would be appearing together, and in some sense, I feel like we’re winging this.”
In response, Evans said, “Yep, it feels a little that way too, but I will say we wanted all virtual. The commissioners voted for the hearing all virtual. If your interpretation of that is that that means you won’t be allowed to be in the same room with your client, if that’s your interpretation, you can stick with that.”
The meeting was then adjourned.