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University of Iowa officer fired over 'improper search' gets his job back

'He is happy to be serving the community again,' his lawyer says

University of Iowa police car. (Gazette file photo)
University of Iowa police car. (Gazette file photo)

IOWA CITY — A former University of Iowa police officer and Air National Guard member who said he was wrongfully fired just before his deployment is back on the job after being officially reinstated earlier this month.

Nearly 20 months after being fired in May 2018 for what the UI characterized as an illegal dorm search, Jeff Williams, 32, is listed in the UI directory as a “police officer III,” the highest-earning police rank behind sergeant and lieutenant.

His attorney, Skylar Limkemann, said Williams was officially reinstated Dec. 1, although his first day back was Dec. 2. Before his termination, he had been working since July 2016.

“Jeff is a dedicated public servant,” Limkemann said in a statement. “He is happy to be serving the community again.”

UI officials confirmed Williams’ reinstatement at the same level as when he was terminated, reporting his salary of $50,404 also remains the same.

The university and Williams’ attorney provided The Gazette with differing takes on his reinstatement, with Limkemann saying an arbitrator found “no just cause to terminate his employment” and UI officials saying the arbitrator found Williams “did in fact conduct an illegal search.”

But, according to the university, the arbitrator determined “termination for a first-time offense was too severe” and instead ordered Williams suspended without pay for six months. Having been off the job for a year-and-a-half, Williams was reinstated.

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“The University of Iowa terminated Jeff Williams following an investigation that resulted in a founded complaint of an improper search and seizure and additional violations of departmental standards of conduct,” UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said in a statement. “It was not related to his deployment.”

Following his termination, Williams filed a grievance with the union — which proceeded to arbitration — along with a court action accusing the UI of violating his veterans’ preference rights, which Johnson County District Court Judge Andrew Chappell still is considering.

Williams in his action — filed in May 2018 against UI Public Safety Director Scott Beckner and Capt. Mark Bullock — accused them of denying his rights as a U.S. military veteran by, among other things, terminating him without due notice, a statement of charges or facts, or a “full and complete” hearing.

In addition to wanting his job back, Williams is seeking back pay, seniority and benefits, attorney costs and fees, and to have the discipline expunged from his record.

Chappell is expected to decide the case in the new year, after hearing most of the testimony on Williams’ suit Oct. 31.

UI police Chief Lucy Wiederholt completed the case’s trial testimony last week.

Williams: ‘They tainted the scene’

Although Williams’ complaint focused on allegations UI officials violated his veterans rights and due process, he testified at length during his trial about the university’s counter punch that he acted inconsistent with UI Police Department policies and philosophy and “intentionally violated” students’ Fourth Amendment protection against warrantless searches and seizures.

“Officer Williams had no intention of obtaining the necessary search warrant because it would require too much work,” according to a university summary of its decision to terminate him, referencing a comment captured by Williams’ body camera in which he said, “I just don’t want to have to come back.”

Williams conceded he had no plans to seek a warrant but offered an alternative explanation. As part of his abbreviated field training as a new UI officer in 2016, Williams said he was told officers can’t pursue charges if a residence hall staffer already entered a dorm room and found paraphernalia.

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The explanation, according to Williams, was that a judge had previously found hall staff to be “agents of the state” — meaning their entrance into a room without consent constituted an illegal search.

“Essentially, they tainted the scene, and I could not charge for any drug charges once they entered the room and found that stuff,” Williams said.

UI officials declined to answer questions from The Gazette about whether its police have cut down on drug-related charges in dorms or provided new guidance to officers.

On-campus drug arrests, though, have plummeted in recent years, according to annual UI public safety reports, dropping from 59 drug arrests on campus in 2015 — including 34 in on-campus housing — to eight on-campus arrests in 2017, including just one in campus housing.

In 2018, UI police made 12 on-campus drug abuse arrests — including three in campus housing.

Audio shows Williams mentioned deployment during search

When Williams on April 14, 2018, responded to Catlett Residence Hall for a smell of marijuana and learned hall staff already had entered and found contraband in the suspect dorm room — which was locked and empty at the time — he testified that he assumed he couldn’t press charges.

“They tried to make contact with anyone in the room, and no one answered the door, so they keyed in to the room and found items of paraphernalia and alcohol and things like that and they took those items and moved them to the center of the room,” he testified.

Even with charges off the table, Williams said he had safety concerns.

“Honestly, it was rather concerning to me that the entire floor of a brand-new dorm building reeked of marijuana,” he said, adding his subsequent search uncovered a butane canister and lighter. “I don’t know if they’re bound to start fire or anything like that. There are thousands of kids who live in that building, and it was just a huge safety concern to me.”

Williams testified he confiscated items that concerned him under a “community caretaker exception” to the Fourth Amendment — although he didn’t mention that justification during the search, according to court documents of evidence captured by his body camera.

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That camera audio, according to court documents, indicated Williams mentioned his coming deployment in justifying the search.

“I leave for deployment in a few days so if they want to throw a fit over me, then they have to wait a while to deal with it,” he said, according to court records.

Although UI officials declined to answer questions about whether the Department of Public Safety tells officers they can’t pursue charges if a hall staffer has entered a room and found drugs, officials pointed to a policy mandating residence advisers knock, ask to enter and “not touch anything” when responding to a smell of marijuana.

In all caps, that policy states, “If a resident is not present, you cannot check their personal belongings.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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