OPINION

A gap that could have been filled

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden announces that a grand jury returned a decision not to indict Cedar Rapids Poli
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden announces that a grand jury returned a decision not to indict Cedar Rapids Police Officer Lucas Jones in the November traffic stop shooting of Jerime Mitchell, during a press conference at the Linn County Courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

What’s missing is what’s troubling about Tuesday’s announcement that a grand jury decided not to indict a Cedar Rapids Police Officer who shot Jerime Mitchell at a traffic stop back in November.

Seven Linn County jurors heard Officer Lucas Jones’ side of what happened at 1:15 a.m. on Nov. 1, describing Mitchell as a belligerent, f-bomb-dropping threat to his life. County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden vividly recounted those expletives during a news conference carried live on local TV.

But the grand jury received no statement from Mitchell. Jones’ body microphone, which might have recorded the fateful exchange between officer and driver, was not functional. The grand jury did see a dashcam video of the incident, which has yet to be made public. Maybe that video fills in all the blanks, but until we see it, blanks remain.

Vander Sanden, sensing the weight of that missing testimony, repeatedly explained how attempts were made to interview Mitchell, who is paralyzed and is being treated out of state. A “multitude” of attempts, he said.

But ‘we tried,’ even if true, rang hollow.

Mitchell’s lawyer claimed to be blindsided by the grand jury’s swift deliberations Monday and Vander Sanden’s Tuesday briefing. She expected a statement to be taken from Mitchell next week. His injuries, she contends, kept him from offering one sooner.

Regardless of who you believe, it’s difficult to believe our fellow citizens could make a fully informed decision without hearing clearly from both sides. If the process had to be delayed to make the record more complete, it would have been a small price to pay for a more credible outcome.

I’m not trying to make excuses for Mitchell’s conduct, driving under the influence of marijuana, resisting arrest and trying to drive away from the scene while a police officer is caught between his pickup truck and its open door. I’m not disputing Jones feared for his life when he fired those three shots. I can’t pretend to know what that decision is like in the chaos of the moment.

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I’m not even here to say it’s OK to have burned out license plate lamps, the stated reason Jones stopped Mitchell. But I can’t tell you the last time I checked my own plate lights.

What I am saying is this process fell short. Our elected county attorney, the guy whose job it is to clearly explain why state power will or won’t be used to prosecute a crime, presented us with a decision based on a record with a large, nagging gap. Vander Sanden’s instinct to turn the case over to a jury was the right call, but the gap undermines its credibility and leaves doubts.

That’s exactly what we needed to avoid. The gap divides us, with some decrying its unfairness and others portraying any criticism as anti-cop. No decision would have been universally accepted, but a more complete accounting stood a far better chance.

Police deserve public admiration for the job they do, but it comes with public accountability. They pledge to protect and serve, and we give them the authority to use deadly force when necessary. We grant no greater power to our government, and this doesn’t feel like a process that lives up to the weight of that power.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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