The Cedar Rapids Civil Service Commission voted Friday morning to conduct the appeal hearing for former Cedar Rapids Police Officer Lucas Jones online and not partially in-person as previously discussed. The two-day hearing is scheduled to begin on Aug. 18 at 9 a.m.
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 October stop in question occurred two days before Jones shot and paralyzed Jerime Mitchell during a traffic stop on Nov. 1, 2016. Jones’s audio recording was also not working during the November traffic stop, but CRPD has not said why. A grand jury declined to indict Jones for the shooting and an investigation by the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation concluded that Jones had not broken the law when he shot Mitchell.
Jones’ attorney Skylar Limkemann filed an appeal on his behalf on July 2.
There was an indication at the commission’s meeting on July 23 that the hearing would be conducted partially in-person. Attorneys, witnesses and commissioners would all be there in person, but the public would watch online. This was the preference of both the CRPD and Jones, according to their respective lawyers.
Commission members Kory Kazimour and Greg Reed expressed hesitation about an in-person hearing due to COVID-19 and said they would participate via Zoom. Attorney Mo Sheronick, who is representing the commission, said the safest legal option would be a virtual hearing.
Following the July 23 meeting, commission chair Nancy Evans said she had a discussion with Sheronick about doing the hearing entirely online and what district courts have been doing.
“He wrote an excellent memo on some of our options and sent it to all the commissioners and based on that information I would like to recommend to the commission that the entire process the entire appeal hearing be held online,” Evans said during the virtual meeting on July 31.
Kazimour and Reed both said they are in agreement with the recommendation to go online.
“I know that the two attorneys would have preferred another format, and I’m sorry, but I think this is best for everybody without jumping major health hurdles, and I don’t think Linn County is going in the right direction,” Evans added, referring to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the county.
Limkemann and attorney Jason Craig, who is representing the CRPD, both raised concerns about having the hearing entirely online.
In addition to technology concerns, Craig said an online hearing raises 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 due process.
“Lucas strongly would object to this being held online and has a strong preference for performing the hearing in person,” Limkemann said. “… Based on what the Commission does in this case, as you know from a prior case, the police department could recommend to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy that he be decertified, which would be permanent. The proceedings in this case have a large impact not only on Lucas’s employment but his future employment.”
Limkemann said he believes accommodations can be made to keep people safe despite the pandemic while also meeting Iowa public meeting laws.
“We would object to having the entire hearing online,” Limkemann said. “I think both Jason and I are on the same position on that, and then that would call into question whether we can even have the hearing on the 18th or the 19th and whether Lucas will even consent to that at this point.”
Sheronick said an online hearing is “the safest and most secure way of protecting public health, as well as guaranteeing everyone’s access to the hearing itself. He added how the courts have been doing hearings and trials online.
“I think in this case it’s the commission’s call,” Sheronick said. “The commission is best served by doing what is lawful and what is safe, and this process is both.”
“Not to get too far afield, but if one or the other parties decides they don’t want to participate, I think they do so at their peril. This is the commission’s hearing, and the commission is willing to, in good faith, accept evidence from both sides. If one party or another wants to default, that leads the commission with very few options in terms of what its decision is going to be, so I don’t think threatening the commission with boycott is the best way.”
After about 10 minutes of discussion, the commission voted unanimously to hold the appeal hearing online. The commission’s next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 5 to further discuss the process.