IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — As protests over the death of George Floyd grew in Iowa’s second largest city, activists demanded the firing of a white officer who shot and paralyzed an unarmed Black man during a 2016 traffic stop.
On June 18, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman seemed to give protesters what they wanted: Sgt. Lucas Jones had been fired for violating department policy, he announced without elaborating.
But what appeared to be a victory for those demanding accountability for officers who use unnecessary deadly force has become more complicated as information about the reasons for Jones’ firing has emerged.
Jones was not fired for the 2016 incident in which critics say he unfairly pulled over, struggled with and needlessly shot a fleeing Jerime Mitchell, who was left paralyzed and has attended some recent protests in his wheelchair.
The city continues to defend the shooting in court, acknowledging that it has spent $280,000 on an outside law firm to represent Jones in a lawsuit filed by Mitchell, now 41.
A grand jury long ago declined to charge Jones, who claims he sped up to pull over Mitchell for not having a license plate light. He says he fired in self-defense after Mitchell resisted and began driving away as they struggled.
It was the second time in a year that Jones had shot a suspect, having killed an armed white drug suspect who fled from officers in a 2015 case in which authorities also cleared Jones and defended his actions.
Instead, a termination letter released this week shows that Jones was fired over his handling of a traffic stop two days before he shot Mitchell in which he gave a young Black mother a major break.
The letter says that Jones should have arrested the woman — the daughter of a tow truck driver who was a professional acquaintance of Jones — for driving with a suspended license and had her car impounded under department policy.
Instead, he let her go, had her father come pick up the vehicle, turned off his body microphone to conceal his actions and later gave untrutful statements about doing that during a 2017 internal investigation, the city alleges.
The city re-examined the Oct. 30, 2016, stop after Jones discussed it during a January legal deposition taken by lawyers for Mitchell in the ongoing lawsuit. The city investigated the stop in 2017 and didn't discipline Jones, who was later promoted to sergeant.
In the deposition and an interview with The Associated Press, Jones said the break he gave the woman is the kind of policing that would improve relations between white officers and Black citizens they serve.
Jones said he believed he had the discretion to let her off, and that the decision saved her up to $2,400 in fines and towing fees and prevented the loss of her license for another six months.
Jones said he pulled over the woman because her SUV had no license plates. He said she was crying and saying she needed the vehicle so she could work and support her children. She was not intoxicated, her license had been suspended only for a failure to pay traffic fines and she had no arrest record.
“I told her I was willing to cut her a break because I think the biggest piece of this job is having humanity and having compassion,” Jones said, adding that arresting her would not have promoted public safety.
In the deposition, Jones testified that he “would continuously violate this policy in order to create a positive impact on someone’s life.” Based partly on that admission, the city opened a disciplinary investigation after prodding from Mitchell's lawyer.
The city’s termination letter claims Jones said in the deposition that he would “knowingly violate department policy as he sees fit” — a statement that he called a mischaracterization.
Jones said he would appeal his firing in the coming days, accusing the chief of caving in to political and legal pressure and making him a “scapegoat.” He said he believes the protests over Floyd's death were just but that the focus unfairly shifted to him.
Jones has launched a public fundraising campaign to pay for his appeal, which the police union won’t cover since Jones is now a supervisor.
“I would go broke and live under a bridge if I have to in order to clear my name,” he said. The former Marine, who worked for the department for a decade, said that being called a liar “kills me to my core" and that he has passed a polygraph test.
But Mitchell’s attorney, Larry Rogers, said the woman's traffic stop shows that Jones was an officer who selectively enforced the law and turned off his audio when convenient.
“He is utilizing an unlawful favor that he did for the daughter of a friend who happened to be black to suggest he does not act in discriminatory practices,” Rogers said.
Rogers contends that Jones also turned off his audio during the Mitchell stop, which was captured on dashcam video without sound. Jones has denied that and said he’s not sure why his equipment didn't work.
Leslie Neely, a 31-year-old mother who helped organize the Cedar Rapids protests, said Jones' firing was “a great start” but the city has more work to do to reform the police and compensate Mitchell for his injuries.
“There was a lot of damage done and a person’s life was impacted forever,” she said. “I think the city has a long way to go."