CEDAR RAPIDS — The city Civil Service Commission unanimously affirmed its earlier decision to hold the appeal hearing for fired Cedar Rapids police Officer Lucas Jones online Sept. 22 and 23.
But commissioners left it open to the attorneys’ discretion to question witnesses in-person.
The commission members decided that a spike in COVID-19 cases posed too great of a risk to health to hold an in-person hearing for Jones, the white police officer who shot and paralyzed Jerime Mitchell, a Black Cedar Rapids resident, during a traffic stop in 2016.
Jones is appealing his firing in June, saying the process violated his right to due process.
Before the commission’s latest vote, Teresa Feldmann, the city’s human resources director, presented the commission with an option to hold an in-person hearing with COVID-19 safety precautions in place.
Feldmann said a large Cedar Rapids venue was available and, with the help of a vendor, could provide audio and video support. She declined to name the venue pending the commission’s vote but said the 28,000 square-foot venue could be entirely or partially rented.
Among the safety measures that could be implemented, she said, were preregistration for attendees for contact-tracing purposes, plexiglass barriers and signage requiring mask usage and promoting social distancing.
After three commission members indicated their preference for a virtual hearing, Chairwoman Nancy Evans agreed that Linn County COVID-19 cases were trending in the wrong direction.
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“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,” she said.
Jones’ attorney, Skylar Limkemann, raised concerns that issues with participants’ internet connection could be exacerbated by the Aug. 10 derecho since service has yet to be fully restored in the city.
Limkemann had previously objected to entirely virtual proceedings, arguing the format threatened Jones’ right to due process.
Given there are Linn County trials safely being held in-person to avoid internet issues, Limkemann asked the commission members to clarify the basis of their decision.
He said Feldmann’s presentation indicated the city’s belief that it had found a suitable location that could be made safe within guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Iowa Department of Public Health.
Evans said commission members already had indicated they lacked confidence they could maintain safety, but she suggested the attorneys could participate in whichever fashion they felt comfortable.
Limkemann asked about a hybrid hearing in which attorneys could participate in person with witnesses and their clients. Evans said making those arrangements would be up to the attorneys themselves to do.
“If you find that too costly for your client, we’ll make it all virtual,” Evans said.
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Limkemann said he remained concerned about Jones and his future because of the potential that Jones could be decertified as a law enforcement officer, based on the commission’s action.
“I assumed that when the commission has directed that this be held all virtual that nobody would be appearing together, and in some sense, I feel like we’re winging this,” Limkemann said.
He sought further guidance on Evans’ remarks that the attorneys could appear in-person, but Evans again reiterated that the commission members had voted to hold a virtual hearing.
“If your interpretation of that is that that means you won’t be allowed to be in the same room with your clients, if that’s your interpretation, you can stick with that,” she said.
In Jones’ appeal, filed July 2, he claims his firing was in retaliation for a memo to Lt. Ryan Abodeely — the commander of the department’s Professional Standards Division — detailing claims from two female officers about inappropriate conduct of a male patrol officer.
A city document released in June contends Jones intentionally disabled a microphone that would have recorded his interactions with a driver during an Oct. 30, 2016, traffic stop and then lied to internal affairs investigators and again in a court deposition.
The traffic stop came two days before Jones shot Mitchell during a traffic stop early Nov. 1, 2016, on lower Coe Road NE.
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